Copyright 1994 by Edward Keyes
Necromancers don't have friends.
It's not an absolute requirement for becoming a necromancer, but when you spend your days involved in subjugating life wherever you find it, close personal relationships tend not to develop.
This was rather unfortunate for Korel. He really could have used a couple of close friends last month when his castle was being stormed and ransacked.
It had all started when Korel started investigating life-energy storage. It is well-known, of course, that magic is not easy to perform -- it requires years of training and a great deal of inner strength to manage the natural energies that are channeled through the wizard in the casting of a spell.
Higher-level spells are much more difficult to manage as the spell energies become all but uncontrollable. This begins to take a toll on the wizard, as his own inner life-energy is eaten away by the forces involved. It is said that the most powerful known spell, the "Wish," can take five years of your life away with every casting.
Necromancers always have a fascination with life and death, and quite often an overdeveloped desire for immortality. Korel was no different, and for him, the throwing away in a few minutes of five years of his life was much too steep a price. The books must be balanced however -- the life-energy had to come from somewhere.
"Very well," he had thought, "it must come from someone else, then." And so his quest began to find a way to utilize other people's life-energy, their "souls" if you will. He planned to suck the energy from them in a carefully-controlled situation and store it in gems for his later use.
He had succeeded with an animal, but animals' souls were very under-developed and not at all compatible with magical energies. Humans' or demihumans' souls were needed, but naturally they could not be simply obtained.
A clever plan was needed, and Korel had come up with one. He would start rumors of a terrible wizard (himself) inflicting terrible evils on the countryside (untrue, but only for now). Those silly little adventuring groups, always in search of a challenge, would then come to him, be defeated, and have their souls extracted for his benefit.
It almost worked, too, except for some bad timing and bad luck. Korel had barely escaped with his life, and had lost all of his research materials and magical items in the fire that destroyed his castle, save for one necromantic spellbook, his familiar Narabal, and a dagger he had pulled from his own back.
"All because of that blasted bard!" he muttered to himself.
Indeed, though he was cursed with bad timing and bad luck, he could have defeated that second party and saved his castle, except for the actions of that damned bard in that god-awful hat juggling those cursed daggers. First the bard had ruined the Ice Storm spell that would have killed half the party and put out the blaze. And then, the bard made him waste his last lightning bolt and not notice the approach of the other two adventurers from behind by distracting Korel with an illusion.
"A damned illusion!" Korel muttered again. One of those cheap parlor-trick spells he had ignored to concentrate on his study of dark magic.
It was all Korel could do to teleport out of the castle to tend to his poisoned wounds. He had survived with the help of his faith and priestly training, but had survived as a broken man. Most of his power base, collected over a lifetime, was now destroyed, and he had to start over again.
Because of those silly little adventurers, Korel was now one of them.
"AN ADVENTURER!" he yelled. No one could hear him out on this run-down road in this god-forsaken wilderness.
To rebuild his fortune to restart his research, Korel had decided to take to the road, perhaps joining a disreputable adventuring band and amassing huge treasures. But first he had to get as far away from Bourbafon as he could, for the rumors he had started now worked against him, for everyone knew that an evil wizard was on the loose, though luckily the rumor-spreading bards were often vague about appearance and names.
So he had walked and walked and walked and walked for the past month, living off the land and the farms he passed. He judged that it was probably about time he rejoined civilization. The signs of the past few days had all pointed in this direction, to a good-sized city by the name of Petravarden. There he would start the next stage of his journey.
Korel would have to join a band of adventurers, and he wasn't too worried about fitting in. Necromancers could never make friends, but they could easily pretend to.
At least until the "friends" outlived their usefulness.
The stars came out for a while on this particular night, but not for too long. When the night became its darkest, the stars beat a hasty retreat behind the rolling storm clouds that took over the sky. Not that you could blame them, of course -- any self-respecting star would hardly want to be seen shining through storm clouds that looked like that.
If you could wrap up the word "ominous" and turn it into a storm cloud, then you would be pretty close to these things. Definitely not the sort of cloud under which you would want to whisper sweet nothings to your girlfriend while wondering where the heck all the beautiful stars went, that is.
For far too long the clouds just hung there in the sky, swirling around and generally being ominous without any really apparent purpose. Then, ever so gradually, a center to the swirling began to be seen.
Now, the natural course for anyone seeing such a center to such a swirling would be to look on the ground to see what's under that center. Actually, you might have done that a lot sooner to avoid staring at the clouds anyway.
But in this case you would be disappointed. Rolling hills, rocky crags, a sheep that stubbornly refuses to be sensible and get some sleep like everybody else, but that would be about it -- standard highland moors. Maybe a hint of bobbing light a few hills over.
Although sheep are quite stupid and are often prone to confuse deep distant drums with their own heartbeats, among other things, this particular sheep was rather fortunate to be out in the fields at this ungodly hour, for otherwise there would only be one living witness to what was about to take place, and he wouldn't have said anything at all.
Since sheep are, in fact, prone to confuse deep distant drums with their own heartbeats, the procession had to come quite close before the sheep noticed anything unusual about the night -- it hadn't noticed the clouds yet either, of course, since it was busy grazing. And in the moment of sheepy confusion that the sheep realized that there was, in fact, a drum beating near it, the procession came into view.
Under a different sky, at a different time, and maybe in a different universe, the procession might have resembled a marching band. At its head was a tall man dressed in deep blue robes. He was carrying a very unusual staff, bobbing it up and down in time to the drum beat as a drum major might if he were leading a parade, which this man definitely wasn't. At the head of the staff, where a drum major might have had a nice gold ball or something, were a half dozen or so stars.
Not the cute five-pointed stars that Christmas trees have. I mean stars like those in the sky. At the head of the staff were a half dozen or so brilliant little points of light dancing around among themselves. If brilliant little points of light could have a good time in the head of a staff, then these would certainly be having a good time, judging from their movements, which were somehow in time to the bobbing of the staff and the beating of the drum.
An ordinary person would have been very fascinated with that staff, and probably wouldn't have paid much attention to the rest of the procession, but luckily sheep have no such prejudices. After all, it had seen stars lots of times in the sky -- what's so different about their being in the head of a staff carried by a man in blue robes?
The sheep therefore also looked at the rest of the people. In the flickering dim glow of the staff, two dozen faces could be seen bobbing up and down, mesmerized by the motion of the lights. The bodies of those faces were marching in time to the drum, two by two. They carried nothing. All were dressed in blue robes identical to those of the leader.
Every once in a while, the leader would give his staff a little twirl, and the drum would beat out a little riff. From the white glint of light off the leader's teeth, the way he twirled his staff, and the lightness of his step, it was apparent he was enjoying himself almost as much as the stars in his staff.
The lack of preconceptions -- some would call it stupidity -- of the typical sheep in this case failed to fill it in on a fact that would be rather interesting to the average man: that although a drum beat had been around for a while, no one was carrying a drum. If the average man didn't know better, he'd say the drum beat was coming from the staff. Since the sheep, in fact, didn't know better, that's exactly what it thought. And in this case, the sheep was smarter than the man because it was perfectly right.
In his nineteen years, Strellin had seen many fascinating and terrifying things.
He had witnessed his first murder at age four, stolen his first purse at age six, and seen and perpetrated countless crimes since then, some almost epic in proportions.
He had watched as friends and comrades bid him farewell with their dying breaths, wounded beyond hope by monsters of varieties almost unimaginable.
He had seen the lifelike sparkling deep within the heart of that fabled jewel, the Eye of Traajü, as he held it in his hands, and had lost it in the same hour to an army of undead.
He had even stared into the petrifying eyes of a medusa (in a mirror, of course -- he wasn't nearly as stupid as he sometimes acted).
And in his nineteen years, he had developed an excellent sense of what was important and interesting and what wasn't. The sense had served him very well in the past, enabling him to pick targets for his crimes with what other thieves considered amazing luck.
This evening, he sat with his back to the outside wall of the Drunken Archer, polishing his favorite dagger and chuckling to himself at the tavern's swinging sign. It portrayed in the foreground a man with a long bow in one hand and a tankard of ale in the other, while in the background was another man standing in front of a tree with an apple on his head and an arrow in his chest. Both men were laughing, for everyone knew that tavern-sign arrows could not kill.
The Drunken Archer was located on the outskirts of Petravarden, and Strellin was able to observe those who passed by, whether leaving to go home to their families after a hard day's work or going into town for an evening of drinking and carousing. For Strellin, his day was just beginning, for the late hours brought many opportunities to carry on his activities under the twin covers of darkness and drunkenness.
He was just about to leave his place by the tavern to pursue a wealthy-looking merchant who staggered a bit, when he saw a curious sight coming down the road into town. This person is important, he thought, so he kept his place along the wall.
The man coming into town was taller than average and a little thin. He was wearing a tattered black robe and walking with a homemade staff. Although his hair was as ghostly white as his skin, he did not have any sign of old age about him, for he swung his staff not as a cane but as an extension of his arm. He had some sort of animal-skin bag slung over his shoulder and something else hanging around his neck. Trotting close beside him was a small black cat.
As he walked he was scanning the surroundings, looking at everything very quickly, and barely cracked a smile at the Drunken Archer's sign. His eyes glanced at Strellin and kept going, obviously seeing the boy as of no importance.
Indeed, to many people, Strellin would be of no obvious concern. Only nineteen years old, he looked younger still. Dressed in a drab brown tunic and boots, his outfit had been purposefully designed to be nondescript. The fewer people who remembered you on the street, the better, was his philosophy. Nevertheless, underneath those dirty plain clothes was concealed over half a dozen weapons: daggers of a few varieties, a short sword, several throwing stars within easy reach, and even a collapsible blowgun with poisoned darts. And behind Strellin's youthful face was concealed the street-smarts and experiences of a lifetime spent in constant learning and self-improvement. The stranger was in err to discount Strellin so quickly.
As the stranger continued his survey of the town, they met each other's gaze momentarily.
Strellin nearly gasped when the stranger looked at him, for the irises of the man's eyes were violet-red. Strellin recovered quickly, remembering mention of a race of humans from the south that looked like this man -- bleached hair and skin and curious eye colors. Suloise, they were called, or albinos sometimes.
Strellin waited until the man was passing directly by him, then spoke, bowing slightly.
"Greetings to you, traveller, and welcome to Petravarden. I am Strellin, and sometimes hire myself out as a guide to this fair city. For the jingle of a few coins I can find you whomever or whatever you desire."
Both the stranger and his cat simultaneously stopped, turned to Strellin, and tilted their heads inquiringly. After a short pause the man spoke in a quiet voice.
"Greetings to you, Strellin, sometimes guide to Petravarden. I am Korel, but I have neither anyone to find nor the jingle of coins to find them with, being new to this area."
In the course of this conversation, Strellin had the opportunity to inspect the item around Korel's neck a little closer. To his surprise, it was an engraved ivory skull on a background of red and yellow. He had seen this symbol before, but where? A funeral, maybe, he thought. It was probably some sort of holy symbol. Korel must be a cleric.
"I suppose that's better than needing to find someone and not having money," Strellin said. "Though worse in any case than having plenty of money, whether you need to find someone or not."
"Your wisdom evidently reflects your years," Korel said, a bit sarcastically.
Strellin took on a harder appearance. "I may yet be young, but I have seen and experienced more in the last year than a priest like yourself could possibly hope for in a lifetime."
"Perhaps you have seen more than a pitiful parish priest, but you should know that this label does not apply to me," Korel replied, keeping his calm. "If you compared my last year to yours, I suspect that yours would be found wanting for excitement rather than mine."
"Indeed," Strellin said a little mockingly. "And if your profession is not cleric, what are you? A professional wanderer? A specialist in walking?"
Korel wiped his forehead, glancing from side to side, seeming to ignore Strellin's insults. He patted his robe as if looking for something, then asked, "Could I trouble you for a handkerchief? My travels are a bit exhausting."
Strellin took out a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and handed it to Korel as he continued talking, "A specialist in walking you are most certainly not, if a little hike troubles you so."
Korel wiped his forehead, then took the handkerchief in his hands and tied a knot in it, muttering something under his breath.
"What was that?" Strellin demanded.
"I said thank you for your handkerchief. Here." Korel tossed the knotted cloth lightly at Strellin. With a practiced hand, Strellin snapped his arm up to snatch it from its flight, but his hands closed on empty air.
Midway in the handkerchief's journey through the air, it faded out, becoming insubstantial as it closed on Strellin's neck.
"What the..." Strellin exclaimed, as a pair of ghostly hands began to choke him to death. He tried to tear at the hands, but he could not affect them at all. He tried to yell for help, but he lacked the air and only mouthed the words.
Korel was nonplussed at Strellin's struggles. "You asked my profession, so I will tell you. I am not a 'professional wanderer' as you said, nor a priest, but a sorcerer, and it would behoove you in the future to not make the mistake of underestimating people."
Strellin was still struggling with the hands in a losing battle when Korel snapped his fingers and Strellin suddenly found the hands transformed back into his handkerchief, which he easily ripped from around his neck.
He was breathing hard and staggered forward. Instinctively, Korel bent to catch him, and was suddenly confronted by a dagger point at his own neck, held by a suddenly recovered Strellin.
"In that case, underestimation is a mistake we both have made today," he said coldly, paused for a second, then burst into laughter and put his dagger away. "It seems we are more alike than I thought. Come on, I'll buy you a drink -- my throat is a little dry." And he laughed again as he fingered his neck.
As much as he tried to contain it, Korel found himself laughing too. "Indeed you may be right," he said as he followed Strellin into the Drunken Archer.
Korel had found his first friend.
They had not met on the best of terms, and the drink together continued in about the same way. Neither Korel nor Strellin trusted the other, but there was respect for the other's skills. Both evaded questions about the bragged-about last year, for similar reasons. Both thought that they were superior to the other, Korel for his magic and Strellin for his street smarts, and in some broad sense it was therefore a meeting of equals.
"So, Korel the sorcerer, what brings you to Petravarden, if not the love of walking?"
"Actually, it's a rather long story, but it boils down to one simple fact: I need money. I was planning to join an adventuring troupe to seek my fortune, so to speak."
"I know several ways to make money, some quick and some legal, and adventuring is one of the most dangerous yet rewarding ones. I did a bit of that a while back, but the party split up after some trouble with a treasure trove and a local ruler, you know."
"Would you happen to know of any local bands that might be in need of a wizard?"
"I'm afraid not. Parties come and go here so much, you'll just have to stick around in town a few days and see what comes up."
"Unfortunately my lack of money is a bit more acute of a situation in town than in the wilderness. Have you any idea where I could pick up a gold piece or two for the next couple of days?"
"Ahhhh," Strellin looked around nervously. "Well, as I said, I know quick ways and legal ways. Which would you, ummm, prefer?"
"My time constraints are often more pressing than my morals," Korel replied. "Can I safely assume you share my views?"
"Then what did you have in mind?"
Now Strellin really lowered his voice so that it was barely audible above the racket of the busy tavern, leaning close to Korel so he could be heard. "I have been casing a certain place for several days, but the guards I think would be too much for me alone. How about a little magic assistance for thirty percent of the take?"
"That depends. Unfortunately, I am not currently at the peak of my powers, having lost a number of important items. How many and how long?"
"There are two pairs of guards that circle at three-minute intervals. I'd need you to incapacitate both pairs for at least fifteen minutes, since I don't know exactly where the goods are inside."
"Do you care if they realize something's wrong at the end of that time?"
"Well, it would be best if they were at the very least confused. It'd hate to have them know who we were, of course. But then again, I'd also prefer not to have to answer to murder as well as burglary should things go badly, if you know what I mean."
"I understand. Let me think a moment... Yes, I think I can manage something that will be satisfactory to you. But I need something: a few iron rods, preferably small, maybe three or four inches or so. Is there a blacksmith's shop close by?"
"Yeah, I know where one is. How many?"
"Say, half a dozen."
"Okay, you wait here -- I'll be right back. If I can't steal some worthless iron rods, I don't deserve to be in the Guild!"
And with that, Strellin dashed out into the night. Korel got up from the table and went outside to sit under a nearby tree. He would have to pray to Wee Jas for the powers he was about to employ, and he hoped that his immediate needs would be justification enough to break the laws of property and propriety that Wee Jas at least recognized, if not deeply respected.
He could have easily dispatched the guards with his wizardly might, but Strellin had wanted them to be left alive afterwards. That was a bit of a problem, so he had to turn to his former priestly training for gentler methods of incapacitation than necromancy. It was ironic that killing was not a problem for him or Wee Jas, but stealing was. Nevertheless, Korel understood why this must be so -- a person can defend his life, but property is helpless. It is okay to overcome someone by force, for the stronger should prevail, but property does not have the capability to defend itself from a thief, and rampant thievery would undermine the order of society, so stealing must be frowned upon.
Still, there are exceptions to every guideline, and Korel was pretty sure that tonight was one of them. His personal needs always outweighed the needs of society. Always.
Wee Jas agreed, and his prayers were answered just as Strellin returned with the necessary items. Korel tested the strength of each of the rods, and all were satisfactory. For this spell, if the material component were weak, so would the spell effect be.
"Let's go," Korel said. "I've waited far too long to start my life again."
And with that, he followed Strellin quickly through the dark alleys of the town, heading towards the business district. Luckily Narabal was near, as always, and Korel, by virtue of the special bond between wizard and familiar, was granted the excellent night vision and hearing of a cat, so the darkness did not concern him.
Strellin moved almost silently, and Korel, not burdened with cumbersome and noisy armor, moved with only the rustle of robes interspersed with the gentle tap of his staff on the cobblestone streets.
Strellin stopped short next to a wall across from a manor house. He talked softly, though to no one in particular, "See that house over there? That's the target. Wait here until you see the guards circle a couple of times so you know their patterns. What's your plan?"
Korel followed Strellin's lead, talking into the air so he and Strellin would not be seen having a conference, "I'll just use an old priestly technique called 'Hold.' The guards will be unable to move."
"But then they'll still see me and report me later."
"Ah, but I will also cloak them in magical darkness so they will be unable to see anything. I can also put some magical silence around them if you think it necessary, but from the way you moved coming over here, I don't think sound is a problem."
"Agreed. How long do I have?"
"I can renew the spell when it runs out, so figure on somewhere between fifteen and twenty minutes before they can move. The darkness will last nearly a half-hour after that, so they won't be too effective at catching you even if you're late, although they can yell for help."
"If I'm not out by the time the hold wears off, go ahead and throw the silence on them so they can't yell."
"That would give you an extra few minutes, but I can only do that to one pair, not both. Don't count on it, in other words."
"Oh, and Strellin, I'd like to make one more point."
"If you're planning on going out the back way with all the goods, keep in mind that I have nothing better to do than track you down and make you pay. The last person I killed they had to bury in an urn, because he was only ashes when he died."
"I understand. And likewise, don't think of putting a 'hold' on me once I get out, because the Guild is absolutely ruthless to backstabbers, and you have to sleep sometime."
"I think we understand each other perfectly."
"Here comes one of the guards. Do your stuff, and don't forget about the other pair in a couple of minutes."
Korel took out one of the iron rods, put it in his hands like he was going to try to break it, chanted something, and snapped it in two. At the same instant the two guards froze in mid-stride.
"How did you break that? It was solid iron!"
"Magic," Korel said, and began chanting again, pointing at the now frozen guards. A hemisphere of blackness came into being around them, blending in somewhat with the darkness of the night.
"Okay," he said. "Remember, no more than twenty minutes, tops."
"Right." And Strellin dashed up to the black iron bars of the garden wall, quickly climbing over them and landing on the other side with barely a rustle of grass. He continued on his way up to the mansion itself, scanning for dogs or people out for a late-night stroll. He went to a window, did something to the latch, and it slid open. He hopped inside just as the other guards rounded the corner of the house.
Korel got out another iron bar and dealt with the other pair just as they were about to see the blackness around the first guards.
A few minutes later, Korel felt the first hold spell wearing thin and got out another bar to renew it. Then the second pair needed renewing too.
Korel did not have any more hold spells available, and only one silence spell. Strellin had better get out here soon, he thought, or this partnership will be null and void.
The first pair of guards' hold spell was failing. It was time to throw the silence at them, just in case. Korel chanted and it took effect. The hemisphere of darkness began to move around on the manor yard irregularly.
Korel smiled. He could just imagine the two guards, thinking they were both blind and deaf, and running around in panic, trying to yell for help but unable to make a sound.
"Help! Help! We've been blinded!" came a cry from across the yard. The other pair of guards did not have a silence spell on them.
The sheriff and his militia would probably be here soon, considering how close to the center of town they were. Where the hell was Strellin?
Korel backed into a nearby alley to avoid being seen by passersby. A dark shape came bolting around the corner and nearly ran into him. Strellin.
"Nothing like taking your time," muttered Korel.
"Shut up. I didn't count on a blasted fire trap, okay!" Strellin said through clenched teeth.
"Really? Let me see." Korel reached for Strellin's hands, which he now saw were scorched pretty badly. Strellin winced as Korel touched them, but said nothing.
Korel chanted something softly and gently. As he continued, the burns lessened in severity and then disappeared entirely, leaving only the general pinkness of new skin.
"Fine. Thanks," Strellin said, a little amazed. Wizards who could heal were a rarity in his experience. This was one very useful spellcaster, he thought. I need to keep this guy around for a while.
"Then let's go. The militia are probably on their way." And with that Korel led the way down the darkened alley, which to him was no dimmer than early twilight, courtesy of Narabal, who followed him silently alongside Strellin.
They heard the sounds of boots on cobblestone, and the unmistakable metallic sound of a sword being drawn from its scabbard.
"HALT!" rang out a deep voice.
Instinctively, both Korel and Strellin froze. Narabal ducked off into the shadows. They turned and were confronted by an imposing sight.
It was a long-sword-wielding, chain-main-wearing mass of solid muscle, and he was coming closer. "Don't move," he said. "And if I see you making any sudden movements, including spellcasting, this sword gets a washing in fresh blood!"
Unfortunately, he was already too close to try any long-range spell. Damn. Korel looked at Strellin, who was covertly drawing a wicked-looking serrated dagger. Obviously Strellin wasn't planning to be easy to capture, but Korel had a feeling that a dagger would be outmatched by a sword, particularly since neither he nor Strellin were wearing any armor. Korel took charge.
"Of course, officer. What can we do for you?" he said calmly.
"I saw you running from Gymarin Manor. Please empty your pockets, slowly, and put everything on the ground. We'll see how innocent you are."
"No problem. I have some delicate items in my pocket that I don't want to get dirty on this street. Strellin, could I borrow your handkerchief, please?"
"What?" Strellin said, not paying attention to Korel in his preparation for battle. Then he caught on. "Oh, sure. Here," and handed the still-knotted handkerchief to Korel, who was muttering something under his breath.
"What was that?" the militiaman said.
Korel replied, "I said, 'Are you a good swimmer?'"
"What does that matter?"
Korel tossed the handkerchief to the militiaman, saying, "It matters because swimmers are often better at holding their breath." He smiled coldly as the ethereal hands closed on the soldier's neck.
As Korel and Strellin rushed off into the night, they heard the "clang" of a sword being dropped, then the "thud" of a body dropping to the ground.
As they slowed to appear like normal citizens, Strellin asked, "What happens when it wears off in a few seconds?"
Korel chuckled slightly, "I canceled the spell prematurely for you. Unless that man can survive without air for nearly ten minutes, we need not worry about him again. I just spent the past month running because people would recognize me. I'm not about to take the chance of anyone seeing me tonight."
"I see. What happens when they find the body?"
"He will be dead with no apparent wounds, and will have a loose handkerchief tied around his neck. It will be a mystery, and probably won't even be connected with the robbery."
"Speaking of which, what did you get? Besides burns, that is."
As Korel and Strellin retreated to the Drunken Archer to get rooms for the night, splitting the loot along the way, Strellin was consumed with only one thought:
"Damn! And I thought I was ruthless!"
The drum beat faded out as the band leader, for want of a better label, brought the procession to a halt in front of a couple of sinister-looking rock outcroppings.
For a second the sheep thought it was about to die because its heart had suddenly stopped, but then it realized that it had confused the drum beat with its heartbeat. It would remember this important distinction in the future.
The sheep stared curiously at the group, and was completely unaware of the fact that the procession had halted, not at all by coincidence, directly below the center of the atmospheric troubles above them. The wind was picking up now as the swirling clouds descended slightly.
Suddenly the band leader thrust the arm with the staff in it straight up into the air, holding the staff horizontally above his head. The lights glowed more brightly, and a strange disturbance took place in the ground around him.
It was as if the grass turned to green water. It rippled and flowed for ten feet on all sides of him, forming waves that lapped at the man's feet. And then it washed away from him, revealing solid polished stone underneath. The stone circle began to rise from the ground with him on top of it, as if the swirling clouds were sucking it from the earth's hold. The liquid grass re-solidified outside the rim of the circle, forming a border of lush green around the black rock.
"So that's how rocks are made," thought the sheep. It had always wondered where the rocks dotting the hills came from, and now it knew: men with staffs made them. It was so obvious now that the truth was known.
The members of the procession were spreading out around the circle, forming eight groups of three. Each group of three formed a triangle, linking hands and facing inward. One member of each group was staring right at the band leader in the center of the smooth stone, who had brought his staff down from above his head.
His name was Wy'quar, but he seldom thought of himself in that way -- as a named individual, that is. He was the merely the Keeper of the Eight most of the time.
Merely? He chuckled to himself. Hardly "merely."
He surveyed his position from the center of the circle. There were his followers, all properly in their place. The circle seemed adequate, and the central hole seemed the proper size, as he knew it would be: the Eight never made mistakes.
He looked into the staff he was holding, at the eight lights within its faceted crystal head. There was power there, but power with a price.
Oh, well, he thought. The price wasn't too steep -- what good were followers if you couldn't use them when you needed to?
He glanced over at the sheep staring at him placidly from between the rocks and felt a slight shiver of nostalgia. For a second he missed the good old days of animal sacrifice. Everything was so much simpler back then.
But he had been so much weaker back then, too.
He carefully placed the bottom end of the staff into the hole in the center of the stone circle. Then, taking a firm grip, he drove it home.
The connection was made.
Korel suddenly sat bolt upright in his bed. "What was that?!" he demanded.
"Huh? What was what?" Strellin inquired sleepily from a bed across the small room they had rented in the Drunken Archer.
"Uh, I'm not sure. Something woke me up. Did you hear anything -- maybe like a scream?"
A second later a tremendous crash of thunder shook the room, tossing Strellin's bag to the floor with a heavy clink of coins.
Annoyed at the disturbance to his bag, Strellin said, "It was probably the lightning flash from that thunder that woke you up."
"Perhaps. Did you see any lightning?"
"No. But I was asleep -- until you woke me up, that is." And with that Strellin threw his head back onto his pillow, clearly indicating he considered the matter solved.
Korel lay awake for some time after that, trying to figure out what it was that woke him up. He was trying very hard to look for some ordinary cause, but he just didn't remember any lightning flash.
What had woken him up was like a subliminal noise, something you're not sure whether you heard correctly, or even at all.
What Korel thought he heard or felt was a scream, although not a single one -- maybe twenty voices in unison. What really worried him was the gut feeling that went along with that scream. He had only heard and felt something like that once before.
Her name had been Shanna.
She had been Korel's first and only human subject for his life-energy storage experiments. The experiment failed, but only afterwards, due to insufficient gem quality -- the transfer itself had been sound.
He had heard her scream and felt her pain during the transfer -- it was something he could never forget for as long as he lived.
What he had heard tonight was the unmistakable sound of souls being torn from their bodies.
But then where did the thunder come from?
"Where the HELL is that blasted Evlad!?!" bellowed a powerful voice from another room. Even so, Grommé winced with mock pain at the volume.
"It seems our calm and collected leader is expressing some heartfelt concern again," he chuckled. "I'll see your 10 and raise you 20 more."
Calgrar grunted, whether in agreement or consternation at the bet, no one could tell, but he did toss four silvery coins into the center of the table. Quiet and slow under most circumstances, Calgrar's gaze seemed to take in everything, his dark eyes shining from underneath a pair of unusually thick black eyebrows that barely avoided joining each other at the center of his brow, partly because of Calgrar's habit of raising one of them at anything that sparked his interest. It was frequently the only sign he gave that he noticed anything.
Thanhkra was a bit slower in reacting to the bet. He narrowed his eyes and stared intently at Grommé, concentrating on something. Just what he could be looking at was uncertain -- definitely Grommé was quite a sight under any circumstances, being quite plump, a condition made worse by his lack of height. Well, let's call a spade a spade: he was short and fat and he knew it, possibly contributing to his overexuberance of personality. He sometimes joked that there was some gnome in his blood on account of his large round nose, but it would have had to have been his father -- any petite gnome mother would have died in labor to bring this baby into the world.
"HEY! None of that mind-reading shit here! Call me or fold, but don't cheat!" he bellowed.
Thanhkra broke into a smile. "Just kidding, Grimy. You know me better than that. I'll call -- here's your 20."
"That's Grommé, if you please," he said, a little annoyed and not at all sure whether or not to trust his partly psionic comrade. Thanhkra was a bit of a mystery, since no one knew exactly what he could do with his mind, perhaps including himself. "Straight, jack high. Beat that."
"Sorry, not this hand. Just three sevens here," Thanhkra said.
"I guess you didn't cheat after all. Hmmm, remind me of this the next time I accuse you of planting subliminal commands into my dreams."
"Don't worry, I'll be sure to trigger your memory of tonight next time you accuse me of fooling with your memory," he said, laughing. Grommé huffed.
Calgrar raised his finger, drawing the attention of the other two and laying down his hand, a flush in hearts. He scooped the pot into his corner of the table. Though more money had changed hands tonight than many farmers would see in a lifetime, it was mere pocket change to the adventurers -- "plundering the treasures of the ancients for fun and profit," as that fateful sign had read, tended to warp one's sense of money in ordinary situations.
"I think you're looking in the wrong place for cheating tonight," Thanhkra chuckled.
Calgrar spoke. "I ask, Divas provides. What more can I say?" And he broke a smile.
"Remind me of this the next time I challenge a priest of the god of commerce to a game of poker," Grommé said.
Thanhkra opened his mouth to speak, but Grommé interrupted. "No, don't say it. I'll remember it myself, thank you." Thanhkra smiled broadly.
"DAMN THAT BLASTED THIEF!" the loud voice bellowed. Through the doorway of the small room stormed a formidable sight. It was a woman, but just barely. Nine and a half out of every ten men would have killed for biceps like that. So powerfully was she built that it was easy to imagine the floor shaking with every step. The sword at her side was an excellent match: the blade was thick and massive, designed to do much of its damage by virtue of its weight as well as by its edge. Many would be hard-pressed to even hold it steady with both hands, but the other three in the room had seen her swing it one-handed in tight battle conditions, once even with an orc in a headlock under her other arm.
"Grommé, you fat bastard, what's rule number nine of the Crossed Arrows?" she yelled.
"Rule number nine states that scheduled reports are to be made on schedule or else," he said, then added, "sir."
"And don't bloody well call me 'sir'!"
She sighed and somewhat dropped her imposing presence. "Look, Evlad was supposed to be here two hours ago. He said he would report in person right after the ceremony: he said something important was going down tonight with the cult. So where the hell is he?"
"Maybe the ceremony ran over. Those strange religions can get carried away sometimes, you know," Thanhkra said.
"I just hope he's heard something about Calgren," Calgrar added.
"Me, too. Well, let me know immediately when he comes in tonight." And with that she left the room, a bit calmer than she entered.
"I hope he comes back at all. One friend already missing is one too many. Let's pray Evlad doesn't make it two," Thanhkra solemnly said.
Something was wrong -- Wy'quar could feel the staff in his hands vibrating almost violently. He had to hold on with two hands to keep it from vibrating completely out of the hole in the stone and breaking the connection.
But what in the would could be cau...
Ah, there. That one is the problem.
One of his followers was actively resisting the Eight.
Wy'quar had personally enspelled each and every one of them so that he could manage the ceremony with minimal trouble and so that the Eight would have to contend with only the instinctual resistance of the sacrifices.
But this one was consciously defying them.
Not that it could matter -- no one could resist the Eight. But he was throwing off the balance, making one of the Eight work harder than the others. This could not be allowed to continue.
Come to think of it, Wy'quar couldn't remember charming this one...
Wy'quar could imagine someone sneaking into a fancy banquet or something.
But a banquet where you are the main course?
No matter. He must be expelled from the circle. One of the Eight would go a little hungry, but it couldn't be helped.
Wy'quar kept one hand on the staff, anchoring it. And with the other, he gestured violently at the imposter.
"So that's where thunder comes from," thought the sheep.
This particular sheep had experienced an education to fill a sheepy lifetime on this one night. First it had learned how to distinguish its heartbeat from drums that came from staffs. Then it had learned how stones were made. And then the serious education began.
The sheep had watched, fascinated, as the strange man with the staff poked the end of the staff into some hole in the stone he had made. The lights in his staff had begun to glow very much brighter, flickering slightly, somewhat like the stars in the sky but different in texture: when stars flicker, they "twinkle"; when these lights flickered, they "throbbed".
It was a distinction that was not altogether lost on the sheep. Even though hampered by a lack of any advanced degree of observation, the sheep somehow knew that these lights were not at all in the same league as regular stars. It was the difference between a kindly shepherd that sometimes bumped him in the rear with a stick to get him to move, and someone else carrying a shiny sharp stick that killed one of his brothers once: they were both men, and they both hit sheep with something, but their actions had very different tones and very different results to the sheep involved.
This sheep had explained to itself in a roundabout way something that a human observer would have put much more succinctly: these lights were evil. Even though they were just lights, this fact was immediately obvious to anyone or any sheep foolish enough to be around to see them -- they just exuded a sense of every wrong that had ever been committed between intelligent beings who should have known better.
With a bright bluish-white flash, the Eight exploded from the staff in eight different directions, each heading for one of the groups of three and stopping momentarily in the center of its group.
To the sheep's left, one of the men in blue robes seemed to want to try to stop holding hands with the other two, but he was held fast by his two comrades, who just turned to smile stupidly at his struggles.
The swirling clouds above them all circled faster and faster. Flashes lit the stark countryside as electricity discharged from within the storm, sometimes striking the head of the staff, but with no visible effect on it or Wy'quar. The roar of the wind became louder and louder, the blue robes of Wy'quar and his followers flapping violently against their legs and arms.
Wy'quar, holding onto the staff with one hand, thrust his other into the air. Obediently, the storm came down, surrounding his arm. The clouds were now a solid rotating mass of electrically sparking whiteness, just above Wy'quar's head. His arm was hidden from view in the vapors, as it he had stuck it into an inverted sea of milk.
Suddenly he pulled his arm down, as if pulling a cord dropped from the heavens. In response, the storm split. All of its vast momentum was transferred to the eight flashing tornados that the cloud spawned, each one spinning with supernatural energy and velocity. The conical tornadoes reached out, the tip of each one touching one of the Eight and then dropping more to completely surround the floating light.
From each tornado, six arcs of electricity flashed out to directly strike each and every one of the follower's forty-eight eyes.
And in unison, each and every one of the follower's twenty-four mouths opened and each and every one of them let out a scream which, had there been only one voice involved, would have shattered most of the windows in a good-sized cathedral. With twenty-four of them added together, however, the effect was all but indescribable. It was unthinkable that a sound of this intensity could be emitted by human lungs.
Ordinarily, any sound will cause the average sheep to flee in surprise. But the sheer terror carried on the winds by this scream froze the mind of this particular sheep, rooting it to the spot in a empathy of shared mortal pain and abject terror.
The man who had been struggling earlier was now joined by twenty-three others, all in violent spasms, their hands locked together by muscles unable to decipher the messages coming to them from scrambled brains.
The man in the center seemed to be having some trouble with his staff. Suddenly he threw his hand out, palm pointing at the man who had been struggling before any of the others.
As the immense thunder crashed over the sheep, it watched the one blue-robed man tumbling in the air as he flew out of sight into the darkness of the night sky.
Wy'quar smiled crookedly. Now that the imposter was gone, the ceremony was proceeding much more smoothly. The screams still echoed in his mind, though, as they echoed across the hills -- such horrible screams -- you never get used to them, he thought, as many times as you hear them.
He was now surrounded by twenty-three limp bodies, no more than empty shells now, really, though. The Eight had returned to their resting place in the staff, still throbbing brightly with the absorbed energies of those twenty-three and a half.
He raised his arm once again, index finger pointing. He circled his arm around and around, faster and faster, and the clouds picked up speed again. As his circle tightened, the bodies lifted from the ground, borne by the winds. They were carried up into the clouds, higher and higher, disappearing into the night.
Suddenly a flash from the sky signalled the proper disposal of the twenty-three empty shells. Their tasks completed for the night, the storm clouds ceased their swirling, lifted off the ground, and began to drop rain like a proper thunderstorm should.
Wy'quar wrenched the staff from its connection with the rock. Instantly cracks appeared in the immaculately smooth stone surface, radiating outward from the central hole.
He stepped off the circle, paced outwards for fifty feet or so, then turned and extended the staff. A bolt of lightning flashed out from the crystal at the head, and the stone circle exploded in a shower of natural rock chunks, leaving only a roughly circular rocky depression in the ground.
Now there was no evidence that this night ever took place here, Wy'quar thought.
Except for that one imposter's body.
He regretted now reacting so violently to the imposter's presence -- blowing him away with a thunderclap was overkill. But he had just acted in the quickest method available to him.
No matter. His body will probably not be found, and if so, he will be so beaten up by his rough landing in the moors that he probably will never be identified.
Still, there is the question of identity that Wy'quar would have preferred to have had answered. Someone has infiltrated his order, but who? and why?
There was a lot of silent buzzing around in the staff, and understandably so. One of the Eight hadn't gotten its fair share.
Wy'quar glanced at the sheep across the way, silently inquiring of the Eight whether this would satisfactorily make up the difference.
Luckily for the sheep, the answer was no.
Once you've tasted the souls of humans, nothing less will do.
It was hard for Korel to wake up the next morning. His sleep schedule was totally screwed up by recent events -- in the wilderness, he would always travel at night, the darkness being no obstacle for cat-vision, to dodge trouble and to avoid the heat and burning sunlight of the day.
But now, back in civilization, he will have to reverse that for the most part, sleeping at night and going about his business during the daylight hours. He still wasn't used to it, especially after the interruption to his troubled sleep last night.
He and Strellin ate a mediocre breakfast together, then split up for the day, agreeing to meet again at the Drunken Archer tonight, "if nothing better comes up." It was Strellin's roundabout way of letting Korel know that they were an okay team and that he would be willing to have the services of the wizard on his next job.
As Korel left the inn, he considered this offer. Certainly last night had been very profitable: he fingered his now full money-purse with a smile. He had opted for cold hard cash instead of some of the other valuables Strellin had recovered. This probably cut down on the total value of his share, but greatly increased his flexibility, for he would not have to contend with fencing possibly identifiable stolen property: all gold pieces looked about the same.
Strellin, on the other hand, was looking forward to disposing of his "items" on the black market. In fact, this morning he was headed to Thieves' Alley to see several of the fences he knew on what could be broadly interpreted to be a friendly basis.
"The city actually named a street Thieves' Alley?" Korel had asked.
"No," Strellin replied. "It's actually called Merchants' Row, but the legitimate merchants have long since moved away once we began meeting there. Officially it's still Merchants' Row, but we thieves call them like we see them, so Thieves' Alley it is to anyone with dealings there."
Even considering the profit involved, though, Korel had different priorities. Money was just a means to an end for him, and he needed more than even a long series of thefts could provide. Besides that, Wee Jas would not make exceptions for him forever, and he could not afford to displease the source of much of his present power.
Which brings him to the key point: most of his power is gone. He needs to find a way to gain back many of the spells he had lost, rebuilding his collection of magical reference books and magical items as well. And for that task, adventuring seemed like the best solution.
So now he was off to buy some supplies, perhaps find a mage willing to share spells, and look for a party that was in need of an out-of-work necromancer.
Well, first thing's first: Korel needed a new robe. After a month of tromping through the woods, his formerly jet-black robe was now dirty, tattered, and stained with brown, not at all as imposing as he would have liked. So he looked for a tailor.
The activity of the town was quite a lot more than he had expected, not having been out in daylight for so long. Peasants of every variety hurried from place to place, some calling greetings to people they knew. It was amazing how they avoided collisions amid all this hustle, particularly while carrying large pails of water or milk or managing one or several animals behind them.
It was altogether too many people for a solitary necromancer to feel at home in. Nevertheless, occasionally someone would tip their hat or give Korel a wave, and momentarily Korel would feel himself smiling in response. Some gave his skull holy symbol or his odd appearance a second curious glance, but all in all the people of the town were amazingly friendly to the obviously-lost stranger.
Korel resolved to remember this experience when blindly picking off peasants for his experiments in the future: some of them were actually friendly and worthy instead of being the mindless subhumans he had taken them for.
After much wandering up and down streets whose names were poorly labelled and even worse to remember, past store fronts of chiseled stone and carved wood, and past hordes of shouting street merchants selling anything and everything from perfume to knives, Korel arrived at a building with a swinging sign identifying it as Martina's Tailory. He didn't know whether "tailory" was a word, but he had to agree that it sounded better than "tailor's shop," so he went in.
Inside, it seemed a lot larger than from the outside, but much of this extra room was taken up with rolls and rolls of cloth stacked against any surface that didn't immediately give way. Korel half-expected to see some poor customer struggling out from underneath a collapsed pile of wool and cotton.
A rosy-cheeked plump woman, whom Korel took to be Martina, waved to him from across the room as he entered, looking up from sewing to mumble something pleasant which Korel didn't quite catch on account of the pins she was holding in her lips.
He took this as an invitation to stay and look around the shop, which he did, soon finding a bolt of pure black cloth that would make excellent robe material for him. His musings were interrupted by the sudden realization that someone was looking over his shoulder, or trying to. Martina couldn't quite see over his shoulder on account of the height difference.
"Find something you like, sir?" she inquired pleasantly.
"Yes, actually. I would be interested to hear what the price of a custom robe made out of this particular material would be?" he said, motioning to the black bolt.
"That would depend on how custom and what embellishments you would like."
"As to customizing, I would merely need it the proper size and the addition of quite a few pockets. As for embellishments, I require none."
"What? No embellishments?" She seemed shocked. "Are you a priest or a wizard?"
"Primarily a wizard at present, ma'am," he said, bowing slightly.
"Well, then," she said, stepping back to study him more closely. "My, what an unusual complexion you have! I wouldn't suggest black -- maybe ... maybe something like light brown, with red and yellow mystical symbols all over, and ..."
Korel interrupted. "No, I don't think so. I don't really want anything garish. It's really not my sty..."
"Nonsense! A wizard's robe needs to be something special. Stars and moons and little tiny lightning bolts ... oh, those little bolts are so cute, don't you think..."
Korel began to tune her out. It was obvious that this woman was acting out some quaint peasant fantasy about how sorcerers were supposed to look. He briefly considered trying to locate another tailor, but he was nevertheless impressed with the samples of her work hanging around the shop. He resolved to try again to convince her.
"... and maybe a few little circles and squares and triangles, just for variety, although I think I'll skip the wavy lines. Can you think of any more symbols I've forgotten?"
"Ma'am, I appreciate your enthusiasm on my behalf, but it is often necessary for wizards of my stature to not overly advertise our presence, so I would appreciate an absence of cabalistic signs on my robe. You see the one I am wearing now? Just imagine what it looked like when it was new and make me another one like it. Okay?"
She seemed to consider this, and winked. "Hmmm, an incognito wizard. I understand. The particular cloth you chose is rather expensive, how's ... ten gold pieces?"
"That would be fine," Korel replied, counting out ten gleaming golden coins from his purse into her hand. She seemed amazed that he hadn't tried to bargain with her. In truth, Korel absolutely hated the bartering and haggling that was the staple of medieval marketplaces: it was so demeaning to all involved. Why don't people just set the price at what they are willing to take for it at leave it at that? This hatred often meant that Korel paid far more for items than he needed to, but he considered it a fair trade to avoid demeaning himself over a few pieces of precious metal. "When can I expect it to be completed?"
"Come back later on this afternoon -- say, five o'clock." She sized him up once more. "I think I can give you something suited to your tastes."
After taking some measurements and seeing what manner of pockets he needed, she returned to her work as Korel left. Truly, she seemed a little surprised at the number of pockets Korel had placed in his current robe, but she obviously didn't understand the need for wizards to carry all manner of exotic items to cast various spells. So far, Korel had made do with ordinary items -- a handkerchief and a few bars of iron -- but almost every spell required something different, and a wizard must have a way of keeping all of these needed items on his person.
Actually, Korel didn't really need all the pockets. With a little trick he had picked up in his first few months at the Academy -- partly sleight-of-hand, partly true magic -- he could summon any item on his person to his hand with just a gesture, whether it was in a special pocket of his robe or in a pile in a backpack, but Korel appreciated organization and preferred to have his components neatly arranged even if it was not truly necessary for quick access.
Wandering through the busy city, Korel eventually found just about everything basic that he needed. From a general supply store he purchased a sturdy backpack to hold his bulky equipment and books, a length of light rope, a scabbard for his dagger, a week's preserved rations, a skin of water, and a collection of various small tools. From a cobbler he bought a new pair of shoes to replace his worn ones. From a scribe he obtained a fresh supply of ink, a couple new quill pens, and even a new spellbook, since his necromantic one did not have much more room left in its pages. And from a woodcarver he chose a finely carved and darkly polished staff, much nicer and sturdier than the homemade one he had used for the past month.
The staff was modified to include a removable cover over one end. Inspecting the semiprecious gem set into the head of the staff, Korel began to chant and wave his hand over the jewel. Slowly and then much more strongly, the gem began to glow with an inner pearly white light, illuminating the interior of the shop with full daylight. Korel then replaced the cover on the staff, verifying that it blocked all traces of the light. He then paid the awed shopkeeper for the staff, later tossing his old stick into a pile of scrap wood out back.
The gem in the staff would shine for longer than Korel would likely live, the magical reaction he had started slowly converting the mass of the gem into radiant energy. Actually, a plain wood end would probably have done just as well for a hundred years, but Korel wanted no long-term problems with the strength of the wood. He had forgotten where he had learned the handy idea of carrying a covered source of permanent magical light with you at all times, to save you the trouble of creating one on the spot, but mages across the lands were grateful to the clever originator of this technique. Korel didn't really mind darkness due to his enhanced sight, but in an adventuring party the wizard was expected to provide light for the others.
Later that afternoon he returned to Martina's shop, where a still-bubbly Martina greeted him as he entered, bringing out a bundle of dark cloth. With a gentle push she guided him behind the changing screen, where he emptied his pockets and put on the new robe.
To his dismay, he noticed various cabalistic symbols on the cloth, with a preponderance of idealized stars and planets and little lightning bolts. Stepping from the screen, he groaned, raising his arms and then dropping them in resignation. "Martina, didn't I ask you not to put any little symbols on this?"
"Well, yes," she faltered. "But you were so generous with your payment that I felt guilty not doing a little something special. I tried to make them not too obvious."
Indeed she had. The symbols were mere outlines, a single silvery thread tracing out a five-pointed star or a jagged lightning bolt. Actually, you could barely notice them, except when one of them chanced to catch the light just right. In spite of himself, Korel kind of liked the effect -- it was subtle and hidden, kind of like his own personality.
He smiled at her. "Indeed you did. Actually I sort of like it. You've made me eat my words."
"Well, if you like that, you'll love this!" And with a flourish she brought out from behind her back a perfectly matching pointed cap nearly eighteen inches long. "No wizard's outfit is complete without a proper sorcerer's hat," she beamed.
This was not at all subtle, and Korel barely resisted the impulse to laugh out loud at this woman's blatant stereotyping -- actually, Korel had met only one wizard who wore a pointed hat, and he had been kind of loony to begin with. Instead, he gratefully accepted the cap, modelling it for her to girlish squeals of approval, then gathered his belongings and made a hasty retreat, quickly pulling the hat off of his head as soon as he was out of sight of the tailory.
No one would ever catch him wearing this thing again, he vowed. But, removing the inner wire support, he nevertheless kept it to use as a source of matching patches should his new robe need mending in the future.
Heading back to the Drunken Archer for dinner, Korel was now ready for adventuring -- new clothes, new equipment, a new staff, and even a little bit of new mind frame about city life.
Now all he needed was a band to join.
Strellin moved quickly and quietly through the busy streets of Petravarden. In pouches all over his body were stowed the treasures of Gymarin Manor -- well, at least those treasures that were small, expensive, and not too heavily guarded.
At present, Strellin wasn't interested in exotic, one-of-a-kind items -- he preferred mainly unmounted jewels, since they were easy to carry, easy to hide, easy to fence, and hard to trace. His pockets had quite a few of them at present, mostly gems that he had pried out of a stolen ring or necklace. Admittedly, this detracted from their value a bit, but greatly increased his safety should he be searched. An emerald by itself was a lot easier to explain than an emerald set into a unique ring with the engraved crest of Duke Hyrt that had been reported stolen last week.
Besides, it was better if even his fences didn't know exactly where the stuff originally came from.
He hadn't been this ordinary of a burglar before: it was just a temporary phase between real jobs. At one point, Strellin had been part of planning and executing daring thefts every other week. The cooperation of a wizard like Korel would be just a small part of the master plan. He had helped orchestrate a dozen people: men pretending to be drunk to divert the guards, specialists at disarming traps both mundane and magical, masters of disguise to infiltrate and get past personal guards, thieves who climbed bare walls a hundred feet high, wizards and priests to take care of the unexpected, even an illusionist to make his victims think that nothing had been stolen.
Strellin smiled at that trick -- once they had stolen a famous jeweled statue, and the owners didn't even know it was missing until they reached out to touch it two months later and found their hand grabbing empty air!
Yes, at its height Strellin's group was quite a sight to see, if you stayed conscious long enough to actually see them, which few did.
Until that one night when everything had gone so wrong.
It hadn't been easy for him at the beginning. Though Mandrinn, the founder of the group, had recognized Strellin's talents from the beginning, the other members had troubles accepting someone half their age. Strellin remembered quite a few challenges and knife fights before his place in the Black Cloaks was accepted.
They terrorized the keepers of law and order in a dozen nearby cities, staying only long enough to clean out a few impenetrable fortresses before moving on. The entire gang was working together perfectly, and everyone was profiting both in money and in skills -- Strellin learned a lot from the others, since experience granted insights that eluded raw talent.
Except, for one person the profit wasn't enough. In the city of Nonarane, Orpho, the expert lock-picker, had betrayed the entire group to the militia for the sake of the sizeable reward that had rising steadily with the group's exploits. The guard-captain was a shrewd man, and spread his men out in response to Mandrinn's plan, which Orpho had revealed to him.
The Black Cloaks struck, and as the members spread out to accomplish their individual tasks according to plan, the guards apprehended them one by one, so that no warning could be passed to the rest of the group until it was too late. Everyone was captured save Strellin.
They would have got me too, he thought, if it weren't for that potion of gaseous form -- his last resort if things went very wrong, which they had. Drinking it at the last second, Strellin had escaped as an uncatchable cloud of green mist.
The penalty for grand theft in unforgiving Nonarane was, unfortunately, death, and the entire group of Black Cloaks were executed before Strellin could mount a jailbreak attempt. Orpho, a hero to the authorities, was found dead the next day before he could even collect his reward, killed in a particularly painful way.
Strellin often regretted killing people, but this particular murder of his had never caused him even a flicker a guilt -- Orpho had betrayed his closest friends, including Strellin, and Strellin's only regret was that Orpho had only one life to lose to replay the eleven he caused to be lost.
The band's treasure had been confiscated and returned, so Strellin was left with almost nothing. Though he was wanted in a dozen cities for grand theft and wouldn't dare set foot in Nonarane (the penalty for murder there is even worse than the penalty for grand theft), he resorted to mere common burglary as a way to start rebuilding.
Only now, he was much more careful. Daring and bravado might have been appropriate for the Black Cloaks, and might be again in the future, but now he couldn't take any chances, since he didn't have anyone to help break him out of jail at present.
The fences, as usual for the profession, wanted to cheat him very badly, but Strellin bargained hard -- he knew almost as much as a jeweler about the value of gems, and had seen quite a few during his life.
Hopping from fence to fence, ditching a few gems here, a few there to avoid losing money by selling in large batches, Strellin took up most of the day in his endeavors, ending with an absolutely absurd amount of money.
You wouldn't know that he was carrying nearly three hundred pounds of gold coins, though, if you looked at him, for it was all stored in a magical bag of holding, whose extradimensional space obeyed neither the laws of volume nor weight.
And he hadn't even sold everything, keeping a few of the more valuable gems as concentrated wealth for emergencies. The Gymarin Manor job had been very lucrative compared to his recent more modest endeavors.
Of course, most of this money would go towards buying magical devices and potions on the hideously expensive black market, to help him in future jobs, since Strellin's original collection had been confiscated, but there would still be a good amount left over for him to blow tonight in frivolous and pleasurable ways.
Heading back to the Drunken Archer, Strellin caught a glimpse of Korel in the crowd, identifying the white top of the wizard's head. Pushing his way through the crowd to catch up, Strellin nearly ran into a pair of strangely-dressed people whom he hadn't noticed before.
"Excuse me," he mumbled. The two seemed to ignore him, their attention focused on something ahead. Let's see, thought Strellin, what are they looking at?
Following their gaze, he realized with a start that they were following Korel, their heads moving back and forth to track his movements through the crowd.
Strellin backed off a bit. "If they're following Korel," he muttered, "then I had better follow them." He had seen too many assassins to take chances with the life of his new friend and accomplice.
As they all headed towards the edge of town and the Drunken Archer, Strellin found it unusually hard to track these two. With their unusual robes it should have been child's play, but he kept losing sight of them and then finding them again, as if he was unable to concentrate on them.
"I must be getting rusty in my old age," he chuckled.
Venret loved being a shepherd. He loved the solitude, the quiet life, the time to think. And he loved his sheep -- he would have been very happy to hear that they understood when he bumped them in the rear with his staff if they strayed off.
His empathy for his sheep was such that he could tell that something was wrong when he came onto the field at dawn. They seemed a little skittish.
Well, more skittish than sheep usually are, that is.
The change in one sheep in particular was remarkable. Venret could tell most of them apart, but had long since given up on naming them -- how many unique names could you come up with for nearly identical sheep? Anyway, the change was in the one that Venret had always remembered as curious and eccentric: a loner sheep.
But now that sheep was the center of attention, strangely social for a loner. He seemed to be trying to tell the others something as they gathered around, baaaing occasionally and walking around in tight circles. Venret had seen this behavior on several occasions before, but had dismissed it as his overactive imagination when he considered that it was a form of communication.
Now the conversation seemed to be drawing to a close as the group of sheep looked up in the air as if watching something flying by. Venret caught himself looking up into the sky to see what they were looking at, but he didn't see anything.
"Now where are they going?" he murmured to himself, watching the group of sheep spread out and head off in the direction of the hills to the east.
Amused, and because it was his job to keep an eye on them, he followed the flock in a somewhat ironic reversal of roles. The sheep were widening out, their social fling obviously over. Now Venret took a seat on a cool section of grass, his knees drawn up in a popular day-dreaming position, to watch them from a stationary location. There were really very few dangers out here to watch out for -- contrary to his employer's opinion, marauding orc bands of sheep-stealers did not lie in wait for Venret to relax his guard -- so he was able to sit quietly most of the day, contemplating, among other things, the possibilities for a relationship with the lovely Lana.
He had just finished contemplating the way her long flaxen hair flowed across her perfect neck and the flawless bone structure of her collar, and was preparing to head south from there, when his thoughts were interrupted by a chorus of baaas from across the way.
Silently cursing that his daydreams were being interrupted so, Venret pulled himself to his feet, slowly walking over to where the flock had gathered.
"Probably found a rock," Venret muttered. Though he loved his sheep, he was often frustrated by their tendency to ignore world-shattering events while being startled by the most commonplace things, like grass, rocks, other sheep, and dead bodies, for instance.
Yeah, he thought, it's just like a sheep to get all excited about a dead bod...
Jumping back, Venret had suddenly realized that he was standing right next to a horribly crumpled mass of blood, broken bones, and blue cloth. Carefully he poked the body, verifying that it was indeed dead.
Slowly he inspected it: it was a man, whose left arm and neck were both bent at horrible angles, clearly broken. He was dressed in some sort of loose-fitting blue robe that was ripped in several places. Various areas of his skin, including the left side of his face, were badly scratched and bloody, although obviously no blood flowed now.
Someone, or more likely several someones, had really beaten the crap out of this guy, thought Venret.
"I better go tell Mr. Gritt about this," Venret muttered to himself as he walked off back towards the farm. "He'll probably want me to take the guy into town to see if the authorities know who he is, maybe find a generous cleric, too."
Venret completely forgot to thank the sheep for their curiosity.
"Can you feel the flow of the crowd?" the old woman asked.
"Yes, kurai, I can," the youth quietly answered.
They were a pair who were trying not to be conspicuous, with a degree of success that was quite remarkable considering their appearance. They were seated together on the steps in front of Garan's General Store, and people seemed to step around them without taking much notice of their presence. Few would suspect that the old woman had engineered such ignorance with the power of her mind alone.
They were master and apprentice of the secretive and little-known School of Mind. They were both dressed in the standard School uniform: a dark red robe accompanied by two sashes, a sky blue one crossing from the left shoulder to the right side of the waist, and a deep purple one crossing in the opposite direction. The colors' symbolism had been explained early on in the School's training -- the base of red signified talent and power, while the blue and purple sashes represented the moderating aspects of compassion and discipline, respectively. In the ranks of the school, which sash crossed in front of the other told something of your makeup: a sky blue sash in front indicated that the intuitive side of your mind was the stronger, while purple in front indicated a preference for logic.
The master was in her middle years, black hair just beginning to be streaked with gray. Her hands were clasped in front of her, hidden among the folds of her robe. The purple sash was her stronger aspect. Her apprentice was a late teenager, who tried to mimic her kurai's calm posture by clasping her own hands, but the way she leaned forward spoke of her excitement and tension. The blue sash ruled her -- the School always paired opposite aspects together as master and apprentice, so that each could moderate the natural tendencies of the other.
"No, Dami, don't look with your mind," said the master. "Look with your eyes, and hear with your ears."
"But, kurai, is not the mind a much better observer than the eyes? It sees deeper than the surface. Besides, I have been seeing with my eyes all my life, but with my mind only the past two years -- should I not be honing my new sense at every opportunity?"
"All that is true. The mind is our best tool, and you should still practice with it. But it is not our only one. You must learn to blend all your senses together into a complete observer. And to do this you must practice with each -- reliance on powers of the mind can be a crutch if you cannot see what others see as well."
"I understand. I have been seeing all my life, but my analysis process has changed with new insights into the workings of my own mind."
"Correct. Now, close your mind. Watch the crowd. See the subtleties and nuances of its flow -- how the slightest signal separates collision from free passage, how the face and the eyes reflect the state of the soul beneath. You have seen these things on an intuitive level all your life, but now focus your conscious on them to gain all the information they present. Do you see?"
"Yes, I see it."
"Now, tell me. Who among the crowd has the strongest mind?"
"To answer this, it would be easier to search the strongest mind out with my own."
"True, but lessons are seldom easy. Today the lesson is that seeing properly can tell you things about hidden aspects of a person -- notice every twitch on the face, every slight movement of the eyes, for they can tell you much about what the person is thinking. Now, tell me, who among the crowd has the strongest mind?"
Dami furrowed her brow in concentration. Her mind went into high gear, observing, sorting, analyzing everything she saw -- the strides, the bearings, the facial expressions, the gleam of the eyes -- to determine the quality of mind directing those actions. Then she saw her answer.
"That man, kurai. In the black robe across the way."
"And what reasons would you give?"
"His step is firm and sure, his bearing proud yet cautious. Notice how his eyes dart back and forth, trying to take in everything. I believe he is looking for something, but something that he might not immediately recognize if he sees it, so he looks at everything and everyone. I would say his mind is the strongest and most disciplined among the crowd."
"Are you choosing him because his clothes identify him as a wizard, who are known for strength of mind?"
"Is he?" Dami hadn't seen any obvious sign of sorcery about the man. Certainly anyone in a robe was more than a menial laborer, but what identified the wizard to her master?
"Oh, yes, now I see. The faint impression of mystical symbols on his robe. I did not see those before in my concentration on his face and bearing. I am sorry, kurai."
"No need to apologize. It is somewhat encouraging to hear that your choice was made without that clue, for the obvious sometimes deceives. Your concentration on the person rather than the clothes was proper, but nothing should be ignored for a true analysis."
"I will do better in the future, kurai. Is he the right choice?"
"Strength of mind is subjective, of course, but I would agree with your choice." The master paused for a second in thought, then continued. "I think that it would be a good lesson for you to more closely observe a strong mind that does not belong to a School member, particularly one trained in the art of magic. You may appreciate the talent and raw power of an untrained mind that has nevertheless achieved such a level of control. Let us follow, but let neither one of us touch his mind yet. See how much we can learn from watching and perhaps talking to him first."
Master and apprentice rose together and, blending into the crowd, followed Korel back to the Drunken Archer.
"And then there were four."
"Shut up, Grommé. This is serious."
"I am being serious, sir. There's no sign of Evlad anywhere, and I don't think he'll be coming back. Now there are only four of us left."
"And stop calling me 'sir', damn it!"
"We should never have sent him," Thanhkra said. "We had no right to have him risk his life all by himself."
"Now, Thanhkra," she replied, "it was Evlad himself who came up with the plan and volunteered. He's a thief -- and I mean that as a complement. Infiltrating the cult should have been right up his alley, and I can't believe that they could have found him out. Something else must have happened."
"Like what? I've asked around in Thieves' Alley -- all of his contacts, you know -- but no one has heard anything from him since he disappeared. We're back at square one."
"Not necessarily. Even if he is dead -- and that seems to be a possibility -- he can't simply disappear off the face of the earth. Someone had to see or hear something! It's just a matter of finding that someone."
"We never found my brother's body," Calgrar said slowly.
"That's true," Grommé chimed in. "We never did find out what happened to Calgren. It very well could be that Evlad found out -- and followed in Calgren's footsteps."
"But it's different now," she said. "Calgren was forcibly abducted from our camp -- we found signs of struggle, remember? He didn't know what was going on. But Evlad was prepared, and he knew what he was getting into and knew to watch his back. It's unthinkable that he wouldn't at least left some clue for us. Calgren wasn't even trying to leave a trail, and we still followed him here."
"And a lot of good it did Evlad!"
"Shut your trap, Thanhkra! He was our friend, too, you know!" she snapped, then forced herself calmer. "I can't think of anything to do but stick around town and keep our eyes and ears open."
"Thanhkra," Grommé said, "did you really find out nothing from the monks?"
"I'm telling you, those cult members don't know anything. They're quiet and timid and just exude goodness. If it weren't for the fact that Evlad disappeared in there, I'd swear that Calgren's trail was false. If there's something strange going on, it's not part of the regular order. Trust me," he said, tapping his temple with a knowing grin, "I looked."
"I believe you." Grommé paused, uncertain of how to proceed. "Sir, I'd like to broach a subject that may be callous in the present circumstances, but nevertheless important."
"Go ahead," she said, barely catching herself before uselessly telling Grommé again to cut out the "sir" business.
"As I said, we are now only four. We have been missing our mage for some time," he said, looking at Calgrar, "and now we are missing our scout. While it may still be premature, I'd say that we need to consider recruiting some new personnel to fill these two spots. Otherwise we might be sorely outmatched going up against the cult."
"Hmmm," she considered. "Grommé, can't you function as our mage?"
"I've been trying these past weeks, but my specialty is illusions, so I don't have the breadth that Calgren had -- for instance, my offensive magic is all but nonexistent, and that would be vital if we went into battle again." As he talked, he pinched a bit of wool from an obviously abused tear on his jacket, and mumbled something, tossing the fleece lightly into the air above the table, where it disappeared.
The table top became a field where a miniaturized version of the four Crossed Arrows quickly trudged over to a cave. Huge green beasts roared from within, and then poured out, eating three of them while a frustrated miniature Grommé valiantly tried to defeat them with tiny sparks of electricity that had no effect on the beasts. The illusion faded out as the mini-Grommé disappeared with a struggle down the throat of one of the monsters.
"I think I see your point. With all due respect to the memory of Calgren," she said, nodding to Calgrar, "I agree. Magic is too important an aspect of adventuring to be neglected. Thanhkra, how're your thieving skills?"
"All but nonexistent. Evlad was the master there -- I just assisted him a bit with toe-to-toe fighting if the need arose when we were together."
"Ah. Well, Grommé, you bloated slob, it seems that you are right for once," she said, then turned to the rest of the group. "While you're all out sniffing for clues, also be sniffing for some new recruits. But try to find some experienced adventurers. To be sure, this isn't the time for novices. Meeting adjourned."
In more modern times, it would be an extremely unusual sight for someone to be carting a body into town on a wagon. However, in this medieval age of high adventure and short life expectancies, Venret did not cause much of a stir when he entered the outskirts of Petravarden with the limp blue-robed body of the stanger slumped in the beaten-up old cart.
Mr. Gritt hadn't really known what to do with the body -- he had half a mind to just throw it in a ditch and forget about it. But Venret had insisted on reporting it or something.
"But to who?" Mr. Gritt had demanded. "If you go to the militia, they'll probably throw you in a dungeon as the prime suspect!"
"Well, how about the clerics? I've heard they have ways of speaking to the dead -- maybe they can find a relative."
"Hmmm. That's not a bad idea. Those do-gooders would love to help out this poor sap. Take care of it."
And with that the conversation ended, with the responsibility thrust back upon Venret. So he had loaded the body into the cart, hitched up the nameless mule Mr. Gritt just called "Hey, you!" and set out on the journey to Petravarden, the nearest town of a size sufficient to have a thriving priesthood. It had taken him the better part of the day to get there, and he had plenty of time to think things out.
The major question on his mind was, of course, what priest to look for. There were probably hundreds of gods and goddesses worshipped around the world, each with their distinctive character and emphasis.
Of course, the stranger's current state narrowed the pantheon a bit. On the one hand, Venret could look for a sect devoted to healing magic -- the followers of Fleera, for instance, whose hospitals provide free relief for the sick and and injured. Unfortunately, death was a special case, and Venret had never heard of a high priestess of Fleera performing a resurrection without a substantial "contribution" to the order, due to the immense toll such a spell took on the priest.
Therefore the plan of looking for an order with the power to speak to the dead seemed best: if family members could be located, then it would be their responsibility to petition for a resurrection.
Venret had heard of many cults and orders associated with death. Unfortunately, most of them were associated with causing death, for even the most vile and evil among the races of the lands had their gods, it seemed. He had no wish to go alone into the temple of Gral the Unmerciful, to be sure!
Naturally, there were intermediate priesthoods as well -- Divas, god of commerce, for instance, whose temple doubled as a money-changer's and money-lender's, totally uninvolved in matters of good and evil to instead concentrate on bettering everyone's life in this world. Surely one of these harmless orders would be able to help him.
Venret thought back to the last time he had encountered death. It was at Lana's brother's funeral. He had left for the adventuring life, believing himself a superior swordsman because he could best anyone on the farm. Unfortunately, there were no dragons on the farm to practice with, so he was sorely outmatched when he came across one.
His companions barely escaped with their lives, but the black dragon's acidic breath had not left enough of her brother's remains intact to attempt a resurrection, even if they could have afforded it.
Venret remembered the funeral. A priest had presided over it, guiding her brother's soul to its eternal rest. That's it, Venret thought. Surely the priests of funerals have ways of speaking to the dead. But what was the name of that priest's god?
All Venret remembered was that the priest's holy symbol had been a white skull on a starburst pattern of yellow and red.
Long before he arrived at the outskirts of Petravarden and chuckled to himself at the tavern sign, Venret had decided on his course of action -- he would merely look around and ask around until he could match a priest with his memory of the holy symbol.
Little did he know how short his search would be, or how much more he would find than just a priest of Wee Jas.
As Korel approached the Drunken Archer, Narabal trotted up to meet him from inside the tavern in which he had spent his day. Korel stopped and knelt, softly saying, "There, there, you didn't miss anything in town. Besides, you probably would have gotten yourself stepped on." Narabal gently hissed his negative reply as the two red-robed figures silently walked up behind Korel.
Alerted to their approach by his familiar-granted enhanced hearing, he straightened up and turned to meet them. When it was obvious they were heading directly toward him instead of merely passing by on their way to the tavern, he spoke in his usual soft, nearly toneless voice. "Can I help you?"
"Perhaps so," the older woman said, coming within conversation range. "I am Jarnelle, and this is my apprentice Dami." Both bowed slightly in greeting. "Is it possible for us to have a few words with you?"
"Good evening to you. I am Korel," he said, copying their slight bow. "But if you seek information regarding this town, you had better ask one of the locals, for I am not a native."
"No, we are quite familiar with the town, thank you. Our inquiries have to do with the art of magic."
Although Korel's face did not change, he was annoyed. Blast that Martina! Only a few hours wearing this damn robe, and already I get identified as a wizard. I'll bet that Petravarden has some sort of guild of sorcerers whose territory I'm intruding upon, and they've sent these two to recruit me or escort me to the border.
He took a closer look at the two. Their clothing was nearly identical, except for the placement of the sashes. Probably a rank indicator in the guild, thought Korel.
The older woman, Jarnelle, had short black hair, just beginning to show traces of gray. Although her face showed slight wrinkles and her frame had rounded with age, her eyes spoke of a spark still within her, though tempered by the wisdom she had accumulated.
Dami was her complement. The exuberance of youth had never left the younger woman, who was still in her late teens. Long light brown hair cascaded down the back of her robe, and her gleaming blue eyes shone with boundless energy and curiousity.
"I assume you two are wizards, then," Korel said. "Or at least wizards in training," he added with a nod and a smile towards Dami.
"Not exactly. Although our results are sometimes similar, the techniques are definitely not."
"Well, I'm afraid you have me at a loss, then, for there exist only those two major divisions of magic."
"You have counted the power of natural forces and the power of the gods. But you neglect the power of the mind."
Unconsciously, Korel took a step backwards. Even though neither Jarnelle or Dami had touched his mind, it was easy for them to see that he was very uneasy, bordering on fright. "Psionics," he gasped. They both nodded and took a step forward.
A disembodied knife and hand appeared at Jarnelle's throat.
In trailing those two red-robed figures, Strellin had lost them a couple of times in the crowd, barely regaining them in the periphery of his sight. It was like looking at a dim star -- if you stared right at it, it disappeared, but you could still see it out of the corner of your eye if you looked elsewhere.
This was rather curious, and only served to increase Strellin's suspicions about the intentions of those two. If they were merely commoners going about their business, why have a magical shield protecting them from observation?
"It's time to fight magic with magic," muttered Strellin. From a pouch at his side, he took the ring he had bought today and slid it onto his finger. It cost him nearly two-thirds of the Gymarin treasure, but to him it was worth every last copper.
He quickly ducked into an alley and thought the command word. In a second, he had faded from view entirely, the magic of the ring of invisibility taking hold. Hoping no one had seen his disappearing act, Strellin rushed out of the alley to catch up.
In combination with his previously-bought elvin boots, Strellin was now all but undetectable, for no one could see him and his feet did not make a sound.
Actually, he lost a bit of time, simply because people would not get out of his way. He had to be extra careful to avoid bumping into people as well, since too hard of a touch would disrupt the invisibility field.
By the time he caught up, the two figures were cornering Korel. He was taking a step back in defense, clearly afraid, and the two were closing in.
Still running, Strellin drew one of his daggers. In a split second, he had the knife at the throat of one of the figures. Strellin willed the invisibility to cease, fading into view to the amazement and surprise of all present, but most especially to Jarnelle.
"Want me to kill 'em for you, Korel?" he asked.
The food had a funny taste going down. If he had been more experienced with the various deadly poisons of the world, or even a little less self-confident in his safety here in this castle, he might have avoided his death.
As it was, he finished his meal as usual, dessert and all, and thus sealed his fate.
Standing afterwards, he found himself a little dizzy. Steadying himself against a chair, slowly the truth of the matter dawned upon him. He tried to yell for his personal physician, but his throat had gone dry, and only a croak came.
His legs failed him, and the chair that had supported him went skidding across the wooden floor. On his knees, he knew he had only one chance.
Desperately he kicked and crawled across the room to where his staff leaned against the wall. Blackness invaded his the periphery of his field of vision, and all his will was focused on his grasping arm, stretching and reaching those last few inches to the veined wood and spiralling platinum bands.
He felt his fingers brush the cool metal, and he gave one last spasm, trying to gain a firm grip on the staff as it fell slowly to the floor, its balance compromised by his touch.
The poison completed its task, and all went black.
And then everything went light.
I'm sorry to do this to you, but this story was never finished.