Copyright 1995 by Edward Keyes
The kidnapper was only seen once. Soon after midnight some two weeks before the shortest day of the year 688, a dark-cloaked man stepped into the firelight within the Brown Stallion's common room, accompanied by a sudden gust of chilled night breeze and the faintest odor of mold.
He seated himself at a table far from the fire, in the midst of a flickering shadow cast by one of the wide pillars supporting the aged beams of the tavern. Only one serving lass noticed him, and she was waved away without a word. She didn't return to that table the rest of the night. The next evening she came to work as usual, went home as usual, and then disappeared.
There he sat, still as a sculpture, never removing his winter turban, its loose ends wrapped across his face to protect against the icy winds that blew on the moors, but not inside. Before the dawn light creeped through the soot-encrusted windows, and wives came to collect the occasional snoring husband, he was gone.
None of the patrons that night remembered him when they were later questioned, but almost invariably they recalled the evening. "'Twas an unlucky night," said the leatherworker Marty Franklinsson. "I was twenty silvers down, and Jaran nearly as much."
"Jaran of Petravarden?"
"Aye, that's him. Me and him and Urlar Gregsson and Ralph... uh, well, you know him, Ralph in the town guard. Anyway, we was playing a bit of cards, and Urlar was cleaning us all out. I didn't know how he did it, just had a huge run o'luck."
"Anything else out of the ordinary that night?" the questioner prompted.
"Only if you think seeing your own wife and kids dead before your eyes is out of the ordinary." It was almost sarcasm, but Marty's eyes held no hint of a jest.
"They're still alive, though?" the calm voice of the questioner continued.
"Aye, and my heart near burst from gladness when I saw 'em asleep in their beds. It was just a moment, a flash. I'm just staring at my cards -- naught but duke high -- when all of a sudden I'm thinking of my Helen. Only it wasn't me, it was like..."
"Take your time. This is important."
Marty paused, then gathered himself together. "I was remembering my wife, my kids, heck, just about everyone I knew. Thinking hard about them, remembering their faces, their voices, everything. And then I was thinking how much better it would be if they were all dead. No, not dead and buried and peaceful, but walking dead.
"Can you imagine how I felt a moment later to come back to the card game and realize that I'd actually wanted my wife to be a zombie? I just about bolted out of the room a second later, sucked down night air 'til my throat was raw, then went home and stayed up 'til morning, sitting by our bed."
"You said something a moment ago, about it not being you...."
Marty nodded. "I've never had a thought like that, before or since. I still don't know quite how to put it. It was like someone else was behind my eyes with me, seeing my kids and thinkin' those thoughts." He paused, staring at his hands clasped in front of him. "Am I gone crazy, Father?" he said, looking up at the man across from him.
"No, of course not. Don't be absurd. If you're still worried, go home and look Helen in the eye -- if anything of those thoughts remain, come back here. If not, just forget that... unlucky night ever happened. Now run along."
Marty rose and left, no doubt preoccupied with thoughts of his wife. The questioner sighed, his head cradled in his hands, white strands poking between his aged fingers. Then he straightened, turning in his seat to the man standing behind and beside him.
"I've heard similar stories from a dozen men this past week, and all of them were in the Stallion that night. None had quite as vivid a tale as Marty's, which is why I wanted you to hear his story -- his father had a bit of the Talent, and it's possible Marty is unusually sensitive to these sorts of things."
"And the kidnappings began two days later?" a baritone voice asked.
"Yes. Seven so far, one each night. All young, and all vanished without a trace. Three disappeared from their beds, three more disappeared walking around at night, and we're still trying to figure out exactly when Gretchen was taken."
"The maid from the tavern?"
The old priest nodded, the medallion of Mygonnil bouncing slightly against his pale blue robes.
"A double tragedy, that. She was the only one to see this... man at close range. What did she tell her boss? Something about the eyes?"
"The next day, she mentioned to Harold of Bourbafon -- he's the owner of the Brown Stallion -- something about the stranger, hoping he'd noticed it too. She said that the stranger was wearing smoked-glass spectacles, even inside the tavern. At first she thought that there was some reflection from the fire on the glasses, but later she remembered he sat in shadow."
"Zombies, dark glasses, fires in the eyes... damn."
"Now, Sir Saudaluk, I dislike your expression. What think you? Have we got a genuine vampire in our midst?"
"Would that we would be so fortunate," the paladin replied. "Nay, our opponent would likely brush aside vampires like moths. I'm sorry, Father Justin, but there is no other reasonable conclusion imaginable. Your kidnapper is a veritable king of the undead, a master sorcerer of the dark Arts -- a lich.
"I'm going to have to bring in some help on this one."
Kipling Saudaluk turned the statuette over and over in his rough hands. In intricately carved malachite, it depicted a robed man of middle years. Although the carving of the flowing robes was masterfully done -- Kipling could even see hints of the delicate embroidery he knew to be present on the original -- it was the face that truly set apart the sculptor's work as extraordinary.
The beard must have been done with the sharpest of needles: Kipling thought he could see individual hairs. The mouth was set in what could only be called a smirk, as if it knew what is possessor had to be thinking. The narrow nose with its straight slope naturally drew the viewer's attention past indistinct cheekbones to the laughing eyes set above. The eyes were the carver's true masterpiece, full of wisdom and yet still full of humanity -- eyes that would contemplate the mysteries of the gods over the rim of a frothing mug.
Kipling had the distinct impression the eyes were watching him, just as the mouth mocked his turmoil. Such artistry... but it had to be done.
Gripping the statue in one hand, Kipling raised it above his head and shouted the word "sycamore!" with a lot more emphasis than it usually gets. Then, his eyes slitted in a grimace, he dashed the figure to the rocky ground at his feet. It shattered. Sharp chips of green- and black-veined malachite stung Kipling's shins, even through his leggings.
Though his eyes had hardly been open, he clearly saw the bright blue flash of light. The miniature thunderclap accompanying it knocked him back, stumbling and stunned, two paces. Even before his head cleared, an unmistakable shout of "Dragonsbreath!" from somewhere close broke through the ringing in his ears.
When his eyes focused again a moment later, Kipling turned to see a living version of the statuette, and by all accounts a much angrier version.
"Oh, for the love of Boh'anya, Kip, why couldn't you have waited a few minutes more!" The wizard waved a large open beaker around, splashing smoking greenish droplets in the field. "I was just about to finish off... well, never you mind what I was about to finish. But I mean, couldn't you have sent a warning or something first? Nice to see you, by the way."
"Nice to see you too, Flaran. How was I supposed to get a message to you first?"
"Well, you could have... could have sent... never you mind about the message. This is some non-trivial magic you've evoked here, my boy," Flaran said, waving his hand indistinctly at the dark green chips of stone that were already beginning to fade away like morning mist, their magics consumed. "I'm sure you have a good reason. So let's hear it."
"A lich, Flaran. Kidnapping townsfolk around here. I need your help."
That silenced even the gregarious Flaran of the Flagon. "I... see. When you say you need my help, I assume you mean you require some assistance in dispelling some of the leftover enchantments of this lich, right?"
"You know that's not it, Flaran. I'm calling in my debt. We're going after the unholy bastard."
"Now, see here, Kipling. There's promises, and there's promises, and then there's liches...."
"Are you trying to weasel out of your debt?"
"Well... no, but..."
"When I saved your life at the Battle of the Sycamores and you enchanted that statue for me with the scroll we found, you said, and I quote, 'I owe you my life. Anytime, anywhere that you need my help, I'll be there.'"
"I know what I said, damn you, and your memory. It's just that... what good comes from saving a life only to throw it away again?"
"Because now we can save the lives of the hundreds in this village if we succeed. Two lives risked for that gain is a fair trade. I'm not asking you to do anything I won't. If you insist on breaking your vow, you know that there is nothing I can do to stop you from blinking away."
"You know, you were a lot easier to deal with when you were just Kip, the young guy with a sword, instead of Sir Saudaluk, defender of the downtrodden, vanquisher of evils near and far, champion of..."
"And you were a lot more eager for a challenge before you locked yourself in that tower of yours. We all make choices, Flaran, Third Sorcerer of the Council of Nine."
"A challenge? Is that what you're craving? Well, then, I've not been idle in my tower -- I know what sort of challenge you're to be getting. Let me enlighten you. Not only is a lich a master wizard, more formidable than even the First of the Nine, let alone myself, but he would have been such a master before becoming a lich. In the hundreds or thousands of years hence, he would not sit idle, but be brewing sorceries of such power and ingenuity that mine would be but cantrips in his eyes!
"A man who decides to walk the dark path loves the Art more than life itself, for he is willing to give up the one for the other. Our enemy does not eat, does not sleep, does not feel exhaustion, pity, or pain. Not only is he surrounded by legions of the walking dead, of the vilest and deadliest sorts, but he himself is for all intents and purposes immortal. I have heard tales of valiant warriors such as yourself striking down a lich, burning what was left of its corpse, and scattering the ashes to the winds, only to be slaughtered by that same vile creature not a week later!"
Flaran paused, all but panting from his lengthy outburst. Kipling had listened, impassively, his arms crossed as if merely waiting for a small child's tantrum to subside. He answered calmly.
"I know, Flaran. I know it all. The priests have trained me well in the methods of combatting all manner of undead -- they are Mygonnil's eternal opponents, just as death is an enemy to life. To rid the world of a lich, one must locate its phylactery, the box which holds its soul. The foul enchantments upon it must, if they cannot be broken entirely, be suspended long enough for the phylactery to be destroyed, before the dark spirit within can reach out again to possess another corpse, and rise again, as powerful and as vengeful as ever."
"And knowing all this as you do, you still think that we two, alone, stand a chance at defeating this thing?"
"You know as well as I, Flaran, that an army would only get in the way and slaughter more men, men than we are trying to save. A small party stands a much better chance to bypass the defenses and get to the heart. We care only for the lich, nothing else. Once he is dead, truly dead, the rest will follow. My great-grandmother once killed a lich -- surely we can do the same. I ask you, will you go with me?"
"Damn you, Kip, you know I will -- if for no other reason that to make sure you don't get yourself killed. But let's be sure to plan this well, okay? Tell me everything."
And Kipling did, from the stranger that night at the Stallion, to the visions of the men present, to the string of kidnappings which stank of strong magics.
"You realize, of course," Flaran said, a glimmer of hope in his eyes, "that nothing you have said points to a lich at all, except for one cryptic secondhand comment about fire in the eyes. It could be that we are facing only a dastardly living mage, a necromancer perhaps, looking for experimental subjects."
"No, Flaran, I know. When I first set foot inside the tavern, I could smell it. Even a week later, the place still positively reeked of the grave. I could even pick out the table where he sat."
"Mygonnil blesses your sense of smell?"
"The undead are her enemies and mine. As one of her champions, I can sense auras to some degree. Some paladins see auras as glowing outlines around people; others hear a note of music for every soul; I happen to smell auras."
"How fascinating! What do you smell of me?"
Kipling inhaled slowly for a moment, eyes closed. His brows furrowed in puzzlement. "Ale," he said.
"And what does that mean?" Flaran asked.
"I have no idea. I've never sensed that before...."
Flaran chuckled. "It means that I spilled my drink on this robe last night and that my maid did a rather poor job of removing the stain. It's nice to know you still have some human failings, although I can't imagine how you could smell auras in a tavern, if the place is anything like the ones I know."
Flaran considered for a moment. "I do. But think of what we know: the criminal is a wizard, and is most likely undead. He could easily be a vampire who was a mage in life. Though formidable, vampires have quite a few vulnerabilities that can be exploited."
"I thought of that, too, but behind the seat the kidnapper took was hanging a polished bronze shield, a memento of the owner's. No vampire would be so careless as to place himself in front of any sort of mirror."
"Well, then, I don't know why you've called me in here. You seem to have anticipated all my thoughts. What's next, O wise master?"
Kipling ignored the sarcasm. "Next, we find him. I've asked around and there are no nearby abandoned castles, unexplored caves, or deserted abbeys. So I need you to scry him out. Gaze into your crystal ball and tell me where he creeps."
"If you know so much about my magics, then of course you would have already obtained..."
"... an object to scry for, I know," Kipling said. "Here. This is a wedding ring belonging to the husband of one of the women taken. I'm told that the gem here is matched exactly on the ring's partner, which she was wearing when she disappeared. The two garnets were cut from the same stone."
Flaran looked pleased. "An excellent development. What would you have done with the ring if I had refused to come?"
Kipling just smiled.
"Hmph. Well, one thing's for sure: you're out of touch with magics. Crystal balls are fine for catching normal criminals, but a mage of almost any caliber can block such devices. And a lich surely has wards against any sort of scrying attempt, at least of any power I could muster."
"I see," Kipling said, disappointed.
"But I have something almost as good," Flaran beamed, reaching far too deeply into a pocket of his robes and drawing forth a disk of ground curved glass, clear as the mountain air and mounted on a short handle. All around the edges of the glass were etched delicate magical sigils and glyphs of power.
"A giant's monocle?" Kipling asked.
"A collector of light," Flaran said. "Here, I hold my hand flat. The underside is hidden from the sky, but you can still see it. Why? Because the ground reflects the light back up, to illuminate what would be in deepest shadow.
"Somewhere, unless it lies in the deepest, darkest dungeon, some light, no matter how little, is shining on the twin of this stone. And with this lens, I can capture that light." Flaran smiled. "You see, it bypasses scrying wards, because nothing enters or leaves the area but plain old harmless light. Guess who researched the spell?"
Kipling ignored the question. "Well, try it out. Every second we delay is a second that thing still exists."
Flaran scowled, but held the large lens to his face, staring through it at the ring in his hand. For long seconds, he chanted tongue-twisting syllables in the language of the Art. Then he brought the lens up to the horizon, slowly turning, scanning, as if he could see farther even than the Godswall Mountains. He moved with infinite slowness. Twice Kipling wanted to ask him how the search was going, but twice he refrained from breaking Flaran's concentration.
Then Flaran stopped. Not moving the lens a hairsbreadth, he wordlessly handed Kipling the ring. Then he reached into his pocket with his free hand and drew forth a brightly glowing sphere, a magical lantern such that light the main streets of Petravarden and a few other cities. Carefully he lifted the light to a certain spot behind the lens, close to his face, and suddenly a beam of white brilliance shot across the field, heading northeast.
"That's better," Flaran said, breaking his silence. "The lens can find whatever light leaves the ward, but that's always far too little to see. Now I see a room of stone walls. The ring is sitting near the top of a pile of similar jewelry, nothing too fancy. By my reckoning, the light path is under the door, across the hall under another door to a dusty bedroom, and up a chimney.
"I'm backing up the chimney now, trying to get a wider view. I see a rooftop of slate, at least four towers -- this is a castle of some sort, I'm sure. I see a courtyard, an outer wall, a stagnant moat. I'm going farther away now. I see a narrow winding road to the castle; it's almost carved out the side of a cliff. The castle is in the mountains. Backing up more. I see the whole mountain now. Now a bit of the range. That's unusual. The highest peak in the area seems to be missing its top."
"Is it lacking snow?" Kipling asked. "Perhaps even smoking?"
"Indeed it is. A mountain of Vulcan! How extraordinary! I wonder if our lich is trying to tap into magics of elemental earth and fire.... Do you know of this peak?"
"If the direction of your beam is to be believed, I think it would be the Mount of the Condors, which buried a dwarven citadel and mine nearly thirty years ago. The range lies two days' ride north of Redstone."
Flaran brought down his lens now. "An abandoned citadel? That would provide a plentiful source of worked stone for a castle, if one had an army of untiring undead to dig it out. Animated dwarves, even, killed and buried in the eruption. I think we've found our lich's hideout."
Kipling was silent for a moment. "I once... knew a woman in Redstone. If she's still there, she might be a great help to us. The town, though, is at least two weeks away by horse, but if we started now we might be able to catch the barge to Deswalk..."
"Save your planning, Kip," interrupted Flaran. "Get back to town and get your pack. I'll meet you here in an hour -- I've got a few baubles to gather myself -- and we'll teleport to Redstone immediately. Two weeks is far too long to wait. The townspeople, if they're still alive now, will be dead in four days."
"How can you know?"
"The winter solstice. Great magics are often attempted at such times of astrological significance -- the forces of the Art flow more freely then. Whatever our lich intends to use the victims for, I'm sure of one thing: he intends to use them... up."
There are old thieves, and there are bold thieves, but there are no old, bold thieves.
You can be old; you can be bold; you just can't ever slow down.
And slowing down is exactly what Marjorie Rivendon of Redstone -- Jerri to her friends -- intended to avoid. Because slowing down means you get caught. And getting caught means... you got caught. End of story.
Breathing hard, she was crouching in the shadows of an alleyway. Her eyes traced the rough stone of the wall opposite her, automatically finding and noting the best cracks to grasp, the best stones to support her feet. Meanwhile, her ears searched the murmur of Redstone night life for the telltale running footfalls, the excited whispers that to her ears all but screamed, "The Watch is coming!"
As moments passed and nothing happened, Marjorie finally became aware that a strand of her hair had come loose from its ribbon and was tickling her nose. She diverted an exhalation to blow it away. It was long and midnight black -- she had started dyeing her hair when the first hint of gray had appeared fifteen years ago, and never stopped. It was hard enough keeping the proper threatening aura of a Guildmaster when you were a woman, but a white-haired old lady would have been impossible, no matter how good a thief she was.
Marjorie had already tripled the previous longevity record for the Guildmaster of the Thieves of Redstone, and had done it in a very simple way: she never slowed down. Never allowed herself to fall into the lead-from-the-rear mentality of complacent Guildmasters who collected their tithe and contributed nothing. She made it a point to be involved in training new recruits and in planning complex robberies, and she herself was at the head of the weekly "contributions" list at least once a month. She picked her seconds and thirds well, but gave them no temptations, just in case.
Still, she thought, as she climbed the alley wall and felt the burning in her legs from her recent run, there were some definite disadvantages to leading from the front. Dashes from the Watch were best left to the young.
A message was waiting for her back in the Guildhouse. Her second, Sheldon "the Shadow" of Avana Forest, brought her the sealed letter as he relieved her of the night's spoils. She didn't recognize the seal, but did note something else.
"Sheldon, this seal had been broken and re-melted. See, here, around the edges."
"Yes, sir," he replied. She had never bothered to break them of the normal habit of addressing superiors.
She looked up, staring hard at him. "Find out who did it, and give 'em what they deserve with the cat."
"Yes, sir," he said, turning to go.
"And Sheldon," she added. He turned back. "Dock yourself half this week's take for not noticing it before I did."
He nodded. "It won't happen again."
She was sure it wouldn't. Punish hard, but make sure there's a lesson to be learned in the process. Walking back to her quarters, she inspected the letter more closely. Strangely enough, it was addressed to "Charlotte Wrent," an alias she hadn't used in at least twenty years. The seal was indistinct, but her best guess was that it was the sword-and-moon insignia of the goddess Mygonnil.
Now doubly curious, she broke the seal. The letter read: "Dear Charlotte, I know not whether you will receive this note in time, or even if you will remember me if you do. Let the caravan to Frelle refresh your memory. If your memory of that is sound, others, with any luck, will be too. A great quest awaits us, with many lifes at stake and much good to accomplish. If you are at all interested, meet me Starday evening at the sign of the Hooded Owl. Signed, Kipling Saudaluk, Knight of Mygonnil. Post Script, The treasures of the Condors might also inspire your memories, and your presence."
Kip? A paladin?
Of course she remembered him, a handsome young sell-sword hired to guard a caravan she had ridden with as a messenger to Frelle's Guild. A bandit attack and a mutual saving of lives later -- he with a sword, she with a dagger -- and they had become very close.
She wondered what crisis had transformed the carefree swordsman, who cared not whether the lass who shared his bed was an admitted professional thief, into a devoted champion of the law. They had travelled together for a while, returning to Redstone for a blissful few months -- he hired on as a Guild bodyguard for that period. The passion cooled after a while, and one night she returned to their quarters to find him just gone; she hadn't looked too hard to find him again.
The letter was vague, of course, telling just enough to tickle her curiosity. The treasure of the Condors... There was only one such named prize. The dwarves of the Condor clan, famous for mining gemstones of extraordinary size from the Vulcanic mountains nearby, had been decimated by an eruption nearly thirty years ago, their tunnel entrances buried beneath tons of ash and rubble, to say nothing of internal collapses brought about by the wrath of Vulcan shaking the very earth. It had been said that the greedy dwarves had sold only a poor tenth of the gems mined, filling their treasuries with unimaginable wealth, a prize that yet lay unclaimed, kept from the grasping fingers of graverobbers only by uncounted yards of ash and rock.
There wasn't a thief alive who hadn't drooled over the Condor rumors, and one of her early duties in the Guild had been to compile maps and engineering drawings of the dwarven mines and citadel, painstakingly pieced together from accounts of survivors of the clan, for a possible Guild excavation effort. As other groups had quickly found, though, it would cost an army many years and many lives to dig out the entrance -- more accessible deposits of gold and gems, like the royal treasury, seemed far more desirable.
Had Kip found a way to bypass the rubble? Was he trying to tempt her for some other purpose? Or was the whole letter a forgery? In any case, she was more than merely curious.
"Karl!" she shouted. A moment later, her personal secretary entered, quill already poised above parchment.
"Special orders, effective tonight only: the Hooded Owl is completely off-limits to normal operations. Instead, discreetly sprinkle half a dozen bodyguards in the crowd, under the command of two seniors that know all our signs. They're to accept orders from me via hand signals, but everyone's to keep out of earshot until otherwise told. Underline that or something, will you, Karl? Thanks. Dismissed."
Whether the letter was genuine or not, long-lived Guildmasters take no chances. When Karl passed on the orders to Sheldon and others, Marjorie was already on her way to the Guild vaults, a quest of her own to take care of before she slept this morning.
Now where would those citadel plans have been filed?
The common room of the Hooded Owl was nearly full, as it was nearly every Starday night. Patrons vied for the attention of a barmaid or the bartender, calling out demands for more ale, more bread, more beer, more meat, and more wine. In a corner an all-out challenge of knife-throwing was in progress, the path to the wall from the tossers being kept clear only sporadically, and only by the more sober spectators.
No one would notice the half-dozen scattered men, swords at their sides, who only sipped at their drinks, or the other two who always kept one eye on the door, until Marjorie walked in. Then they always kept one eye on her.
It was not hard to spot the paladin in the crowd. He was seated at a table, alone except for the company of a robed man, almost certainly a wizard. Somehow he seemed surrounded by an aura of nobility: how he held his head a little straighter than anyone else, how his lips were eternally pressed together in a half-smile. He had aged gracefully, Marjorie thought. His beard had traces of gray in it, but she was sure he could still swing a sword with the best of them -- another soul who knew never to slow down.
"Sir Saudaluk?" she asked pleasantly, sliding into a chair across from him at the same time.
"Charlotte? Is that you?"
She nodded, smiling. Then she noticed the number of steins scattered across the table. "I didn't think paladins were allowed to drink."
"I'm not," he said, indicating his companion. "May I introduce you to the wizard Flaran... Flaran of the Flagon. Flaran, Charlotte Wrent."
She looked over at the wizard, and to her alarm his eyes seemed to be moving independently, one eye on her and the other roaming the tavern. Her surprise must have registered on her face. "Learned this trick from a lengthy talk with a chameleon. But I can only do it right when I've had a few. Nice to meet you, ma'am."
She disregarded the inebriated mage for the moment. "You've changed, Kip."
"You haven't," he replied, "seeing how you received my message at the Guild, and quickly, too. I was hoping you'd seen a better way to live."
"Uh-huh. Look, Kip, let's discuss the morality stuff another time; we've got a lot of catching up in store anyway. Now, about that treasure..."
He nodded, with a sigh. "I'll give you the full story if you're interested, but the bottom line for you is that there's a very good chance the Condor vaults have been opened. A lich has taken the time to excavate the citadel, and probably has collected what he could find of value down there. We're going after that lich, for reasons more important than gold."
"But," Kipling continued, "we need your help. We need a covert way behind the lich's defenses; a frontal attack is suicide. You once told me you had access to plans of the layout of the dwarven mines. We need those plans, and are willing to pay well for them, either in a sum up front or in a cut of the treasure recovered should we succeed. Do you still have them?"
Marjorie's mind whirled. The Condor treasure, exposed to the sun again, ripe for the pickings! A lich as guardian... But the treasure!
"I do have those plans, with me, as a matter of fact. But I don't quite feel like parting with them just yet. How many are going, and when are you planning to leave?"
"Just us two, tomorrow morn. You don't have much time to make up your mind; we can't delay."
She considered almost a second. "Okay, I've decided. I won't sell them to you."
Kipling's face fell.
"But," she continued, "I will take them with me when we three set out in the morning."
"Out of the question!" Kipling roared. "It's far too dangerous! I won't allow it!"
Marjorie answered calmly, checking off items on her fingers. "1, You need a scout to bypass traps you might encounter. 2, If you're risking your life why won't you let someone else make that choice? And 3, I'll be damned if someone else is going to collect the mother lode, the treasure I've been dreaming of more than half my life!"
Kipling scowled, silent. It was Flaran who chimed in. "Oh, Kip, let the lass tag along."
Suddenly a knife appeared imbedded into the tabletop, sticking up from between two of Flaran's fingers.
"Don't call me 'lass,' boy," Marjorie growled. She had never taken her eyes from Kipling's face.
Kipling nodded sadly, nevertheless deeply impressed. The lady knew how to take care of herself even all those years ago, and obviously still did. "Is a third cut okay by you?" he asked, by way of accepting her offer.
"It would only be fair," she smiled. "Shall we adjourn to your room to draw up our plans in more detail?" Simultaneously she signed to her watchers, touching her shoulder just so, looking out the window just so, "All is well... Going upstairs... Deploy half outside, half inside... Will return in one hour... Or else."
As she followed the two up the stout wooden stairs, she considered what she was getting herself into. Three, alone, against a lich and an undead army. What a risk, but what a prize!
Who said there weren't any old, bold thieves?
The cave opening yawned, a deeper black against the dark gray of stone at twilight. No moss framed its edges, no scraps of fur or scatterings of bones spoke of any inhabitants. From it issued a cool breeze, warm against the frigid cold of a mountain winter, and from within came the faintest whistling cry, as the air objected to leaving its womb of stone.
"You're sure this is the best way?" Kipling asked.
"Positive," Flaran said. "Charlotte's maps show this cave used to connect up to the mines. Specifically, to one subsystem that runs directly under the castle's present location. Even if there's no connection, we ought to be able to get close enough to attempt a short-range teleport hop into the castle itself without attracting the attention that a higher-energy one would."
"Do we know this tunnel is clear all the way to the castle?" Marjorie asked.
"Sort of. It's clear all the way to a sealed door near the castle. I can't scry beyond it, but the door itself looks of recent make, so the tunnels beyond should be clear."
"If the door has a lock, consider it already open. If it's magic, it's your responsibility, Flaran." She paused. "I have no trouble staying inconspicuous within, but you two will stick out like dragons in a henhouse. I hope you have some magics for that, too."
"Indeed I do, my lady," Flaran replied. Marjorie glared; she had automatically expected to be addressed as "sir."
"Two things," he continued, "stick out even worse than dragons in the realm of the undead: light and life. We must carry no torches; instead I will bestow upon you both the night vision of dwarves, so we can traverse the caves as they do: by heat. The second spell is more delicate; it masks the aura of life around us, replacing it with the voids of the undead. They sense this way most often, and the lesser undead will probably ignore us as they would a fellow wraith."
He paused, turning to Kipling. "However, the spell may not work for you. The chosen of the gods have unusually strong life auras. To be ignored as we must be, you must not call upon your goddess. You must try to think as an ordinary man, not a knight. And for the sake of Boh'anya, don't draw that special sword of yours!... At least until we are discovered, at which point all bets are off."
"You think we will be found?" Marjorie asked.
"Certain of it," said Flaran.
"You always were the pessimist, Flaran," said Kipling. "Just when we are found, and how we handle ourselves at that point, will make all the difference. Remember that there are some things worth risking your life for."
"I know," said Marjorie.
Kipling looked at her strangely.
Flaran cleared his throat. "Stand together, you two, and I'll cast these spells." He chanted for a few moments, then touched both of their closed eyes, and his own. When Marjorie opened her eyes again, she gasped. The dim, colorless twilight had been replaced by a rainbow menagerie. The cool stone radiated blues and purples, and her warm-blooded comrades virtually glowed in orange and yellow. This would take some doing to get used to -- spotting the telltale scratches of secret doors and traps would be especially hard, since everything seemed slightly blurred.
"There," Flaran said. Marjorie had ignored him during the second castings. "Now, remember, Kipling. Think 'ordinary man.' And please restrain yourself from striking down any of the zombies in a fit of righteous anger, or whatever it is you do -- it would cancel the spell. Shall we proceed? Ladies -- and scouts -- first." He bowed, sweeping his arm towards the cave entrance.
Moving lightly, she walked up to the entrance. Without a word, she plunged in. Twice, she nearly stumbled over irregularities in the cave floor, but quickly learned how to judge shape from her infravision. It's a good thing we have this practice tunnel before the real thing, she thought.
The transition from natural cave to dwarven excavation was quite sudden. She nearly banged her head when the ceiling plummeted to the five feet preferred by the short folk. Instead of the gently flowing stone of river caves or the harsh jagged angles of earthquake-born fissures, the dwarven tunnels were square. Walls and ceilings were rough-hewn, but the floor was quite smooth, no doubt for the wheels of the mine carts.
Side tunnels were numerous -- the mountain must be nearly hollow after so many years -- but Marjorie kept to the memorized route. In spite of her efforts to locate any traps set for unwelcome visitors, either by the dwarves or the lich, she found none. No doubt this would change beyond the door.
So far the tunnels had been clear of anything but dust, but now, as she approached the door, she saw signs of recently-cleared rubble. Even more disconcerting were the scattered bones of dwarves -- she could tell the race both from the size and from the telltale thick brow ridges on the skulls. The door itself was apparently solid iron, hinges on the other side, with an intimidating keyhole but no other decorations.
She examined the keyhole carefully as the other two caught up with her. She sighed when she heard the muffled clanking of Kipling's armor -- how were they supposed to be sneaky with a plate mail-clad warrior?
"Just a second, my dear," Flaran whispered. "Let me make sure the door is not enchanted before you ply your trade." He chanted softly, then stared hard at the door and the nearby walls. "That's strange. I don't see any enchantments, but I can't sense all of the door -- it might have a layer of lead on the other side. I would advise caution."
"Thanks," she muttered. "I never would have remembered to be careful on my own." She rubbed her hands together to regain a little feeling in her fingers, then brought her lockpicks up to the door. For long minutes she probed silently, feeling out the workings of the lock mechanism. Then, just as Flaran was about to suggest a disintegration spell, she twisted hard on a pick and was rewarded with the sound of a bolt falling free.
She gave it a little push to verify that the door was free, but the air pressure kept it from swinging open. She smiled back at the other two. "Shall we proceed?"
Flaran didn't move. "I'm worried," he whispered. "It was foolish of the lich not to lock that door with a spell."
"Maybe he doesn't know that spell," Kipling answered. "Or maybe this is a dwarvish door after all. Our lich is smart, but he must make mistakes, and I'm willing to take advantage of any we happen across." With that he followed Marjorie through the door.
"Dragonsbreath!" muttered Flaran, as he followed as well. "This is too easy!"
In the spectrum of heat, there was no sign. But had the three been seeing with their natural eyesight, they might have noticed the pair of glowing red sparks in the eyesockets of one of the scattered dwarven skulls.
The sparks tracked Flaran's back until the iron door thudded shut, then winked out like dying embers, leaving the passage in total darkness once again.
On the other side of the door, another skull came to life, with fires in its eyes, to take up the observation of the intruders.
The tunnels beyond were a labyrinth, navigable only by a dwarf or by a map-wielder. Unlike the abandoned passages on the other side of the door, these routes were occupied. Marjorie nearly screamed when she all but bumped into a dwarven zombie -- to the heat-sight of infravision, animated bodies were the same temperature as their surroundings.
She froze, but the shambling corpse passed her by without any reaction. At least Flaran's spell seemed to work. We might just pull this off, she thought. Now that she knew what to look for, she was disgusted to find that the passages ahead were virtually a constant stream of empty-eyed dwarves, each carrying a bulging sack or a large rock -- no doubt the excavations still continued. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the line, following it as it wound upwards, to the lich's castle.
Flaran was nonplussed, confident in his spells and familiar enough with the undead from his magical studies not to be squeamish. He stepped into the line shortly behind Marjorie.
Kipling's teeth were clenched, his muscles tight to prevent him from gripping his sword and destroying these abominations, these perversions of life. Every iota of his training called out to him to set these souls free from their torment, but his reason screamed in response, draw your sword and all is lost. He stepped into the line, revulsion hovering at the back of his throat.
The winding line of zombies somehow reminded him of his days back at the House of the Morning Star, in training to become one of the chosen, a Knight of Mygonnil. Discipline was harsh, and every exercise had an underlying moral message. The priests were training leaders of men, and so everyone took their turn as platoon commander -- Kipling recalled vividly the day he had to order Stefan to take on a suicide mission. Stefan hadn't said anything but "yes, sir," and even though it was only an exercise, Kipling had felt horrible for days.
He remembered the days and nights of sword practice, recalled every trick he had learned with a blade then and since -- real battles can be inducements for quick innovation. And he remembered the day he had completed his quest for his holy sword, and the long days and nights of fasting and prayer necessary before it would agree to be wielded by him.
He remembered his family, proud of the accomplishments of their brother and son. He remembered his father, a blacksmith, staring in awe at the workmanship of his sword, and he remembered the embarrassment when the sword had shocked his father, unwilling to be held by one not totally pure of heart.
He remembered his grandmother, telling him stories as a lad of his wonderful great-grandmother, Leradrill Malchanor. Though she worshipped another goddess than he did now, the tales of her kindness and her quests stayed with him as inspiration for the good one person might achieve. In fact, were it not for his memories of his great-grandmother...
A crushing thought swamped out all others. It gathered all his good deeds, all his accomplishments, all his skills together, and laughed at them. Not only his own life, but the lives of all of his brothers and sisters, of his parents and grandparents together. Is this all you have achieved? the thought rang out, with force enough to nearly drop him to his knees. Then suddenly the pressure lifted, and he opened his eyes, without remembering closing them.
"Kipling!" a harsh whisper hissed from beside him. A strong arm pulled him into a side passage, away from the press of zombies. "Kip! Are you all right?"
"Kip," Flaran's voice broke in, "have you just been remembering unusual things?"
The stunned paladin could only nod, then managed to gasp out, "My training. Powers of my sword. My grandmother."
"Your grandmother? That's odd. But the rest isn't. I have just felt my mind being probed for the details of my Art, and Charlotte here reports the same about her own training and skills."
"Meaning what?" Kipling asked. Charlotte remained silent, looking around them all with increasing anxiety. She could guess what it meant.
"Dragonsbreath! Kip, doesn't it remind you of the account of the leatherworker at the Brown Stallion? A foreign mind rifling through memories. I should have thought of it before! In that case, the lich probably wanted to find out identities of potential victims, times to best capture them, and so forth. Now..."
"He just wants to know how to kill us the easy way," Marjorie broke in. "Consider ourselves discovered, and unmasked. We leave, now!"
Kipling waved her silent. "Flaran, can't you block this spell?"
"It's not a spell. Our lich has a touch of the Talent. It's psionics, a separate problem that I do not have the spells to counter."
"Did you hear me? We're discovered! Unless you want to go toe-to-toe with a master of darkness and his whole dung-eating army, we leave, NOW!"
Neither Kipling nor Flaran moved.
Marjorie didn't give up. "If he's using these psionic things, he's not close enough to fry us with a fireball, but he will be, and soon! We can't fight him in corridors like this! Come ON!"
Kipling turned to her, frighteningly calm. "Our mission is unchanged. The lich must be defeated -- here or in his castle, it makes no difference. It he comes to meet us himself, fine. If he sends zombies after us, we can deal with them easily in these narrow passages.
"However," he continued, "your contribution to this mission was your map. If you wish to leave now, you may still have time. I promise you that your share of the treasure will not be forfeit, should we succeed. Flaran and I are going on, right, Flaran?"
The mage rolled his eyes, but nodded. Then he began checking that his spells of contingency in the case of his death were still active.
She glared at one and then the other, then set off down the passage without a word, confident she could remember a way to bypass the zombies and see the stars again.
"Damn it," she muttered to herself. "Rule number one: don't get seen! Rule number two: don't get caught! By Boh'anya, the treasure will wait!"
"In that, my dear, you are correct," a ghostly voiced rasped at her from the shadows. A skeletal hand with a grasp like iron wrapped around her arm, and before she could find the wits to scream, she found that she could not.
Her blood began to freeze in her veins.
"She's right, you know," the wizard's voice said, floating over Kipling's shoulder. "If he knows we're here, he can pick the time and place to deal with us. The home turf advantage is not one we should cede to one as crafty as our opponent."
"Damn it, Flaran, I know that! But what am I supposed to do? You said yourself that the people will be dead in a day. We can't just leave and come back later to try something else. It's now or never!" Kipling's arm brushed aside huge cobwebs, with strands like yarn. Luckily they weren't sticky, indicating the long absence of their spinner.
"Kipling, listen to me. Open your mind to the possibility of leaving them. We stand next to no chance of prevailing. If doing noble deeds is what matters to you, think of all the good you can do in the years to come -- good that will be left undone if you die here, today."
"Good isn't something you can weigh in scales, Flaran. It is wrong for those people to die, and that's that." Kipling paused, considering. "But it's also wrong of me to insist that you accompany me -- coming this far, and providing us with the protective spells, is fair repayment of your debt to me. Consider it fulfilled. You can leave whenever you wish."
"Thanks, Kip. I usually don't run until things get a lot worse than this. But don't worry, I will run, when the time comes. And I advise you strongly to be within arm's reach of me when I do. After all, tele..."
Flaran's comment was cut short by a gasp. He collapsed to his knees, holding his hands to his temples in agony. He tried to reach in his pouches for spell components, but his shaking hands could not hold on to them, and his lips could not force syllables of the Art past the pain.
The distinctive metallic sound of a sword clearing its scabbard echoed up and down the corridor. Kipling's sword blazed to light, banishing the shadows for many paces around and allowing his vision to shift back into the normal spectrum. "Show yourself, fiend!" he bellowed.
At the edge of the light, a figure appeared, as if an invisible curtain had been drawn aside. "As you wish," it whispered. Though it was wearing elaborate embroidered robes and bedecked with many amulets, the underlying body was all but skeletal. Each bone of its hand stood out clearly under skin like parchment as it gripped a banded quarterstaff. Its face was like a skull wrapped in a single sheet of oilcloth. But where shriveled raisins of eyes would normally be, twin beacons of red fury blazed forth.
Kipling faced the lich, as if his entire existence had led him to just this confrontation.
With a bellow of rage, he lifted his sword and charged the lich, willing every bit of holy might at his disposal into the strike. The sword arced across, headed in an unstoppable trajectory for the lich's neck.
And passed completely through the lich, burying itself an inch deep in the stone wall. The illusion winked out a second later, and wheezing laughter echoed down the corridor from behind him.
The laughter quickly changed to murmured chanting, and Kipling was barely able to wrestle the preternaturally keen edge of his sword out of the stone in time to meet the quintet of streaking white energy pulses that darted at him from the lich's fingertips.
He held his sword in a guard position, as if blocking a physical attack, and the spell faded into nothingness a pace from him, dispelled by the power of his holy sword.
Kipling had barely recovered from that attack when a crackling bolt of lightning exploded from the lich's hands, passing bare inches over Flaran's still form to come streaking at Kipling.
It, too, was absorbed by the sword, which now hummed in Kipling's hands, a virtual conduit of Mygonnil's power.
"Your spells are worthless against one of true faith, monster," he yelled, advancing towards the lich with his sword still at guard.
"Faith, or luck?" the lich rasped. "Try your hand at stronger magics!" And with that the thing reached into a pouch at its side and threw a half-dozen faintly glowing pebbles at the paladin.
Kipling readied himself, drawing on all his holy might to dispel whatever foul enchantments those stones contained. The pebbles flew toward him; his sword flashed once in an emanation of power.
And the pebbles suddenly blossomed into miniature boulders, rocks nearly three feet across!
He was slammed to the ground under a ton of rubble.
He felt a sharp stabbing pain in his left leg. His ribs felt as if they were moments away from being crushed, only barely protected by the steel shell he wore. He couldn't feel his right arm at all, and was fairly certain his sword was no longer in his grasp.
The corridor was once again pitch black, except to Kipling's vision it was deep purple, with curious points of dancing light, and then gathering darkness.
Kipling lost consciousness, and his battered body relaxed.
Soon afterward, the rocks were lifted, tossed down the hall with preternatural strength by skeletal arms. The lich placed the paralyzed body of Flaran next to the unconscious paladin.
"He knew that I was aware of his precious sword's powers. Why didn't he think I could find a way to turn it against him? Paladins! Will they never learn?"
And then the three of them winked out of existence, the absence of the lich's fiery eyes plunging the corridor into deepest blackness.
From out of the darkness, dwarven zombies shambled in, mindlessly and silently clearing away the scattered boulders, which had returned to normal rock again after the miniaturization magic had been dispelled.
Kipling awoke to the sound of his heart throbbing in his temples. He ached all over, but felt no stabbing pains, the sign of recently broken bones. His wrists were shackled to the cool stone wall behind him. He opened his eyes, but saw no difference; it was still pitch dark.
"Flaran?" he whispered, sure that he was locked up in the lich's dungeons, possibly with the mage.
"He is here," a familiar voice rasped. Suddenly the room was flooded with white light. When his eyes cleared, Kipling took note of the other two prisoners to his right: Flaran and Charlotte. Damn, he thought. There goes the rescue party.
His adversary stood, still as a statue, in front of him, staring into his own blue orbs with those hellish red glowing eyes.
"Your name is Kipling Saudaluk, son of Getrell Saudaluk, son of Herae Jussinius Saudaluk, daughter of Leradrill Malchanor Jussinius. Do not deceive me in anything, my little paladin -- there is no telling what I already know, and the reason you are still alive is tenuous at best."
Kipling nodded. Now was the time to gather as much information as he could, just in case. "And you are?"
"I'm quite surprised you don't know. Rule number two of fighting a lich, I'm told, is to know its living identity."
"And rule number one?"
"Don't ever try to fight it in its lair."
Kipling sighed. "Am I to be tortured for information, sacrificed in your solstice festivities, or just killed outright?"
The lich chuckled, a disconcerting sound when performed with shrivelled vocal cords. "First, as you know, there is no need for me to torture you to plumb the depths of your knowledge. Second, I already have enough souls for my ritual, and yours would not suit me in any case. And third, if I had wanted you dead, we would not be having this pleasant conversation."
"So why?" Kipling asked, shifting his weight in the shackles to test their strength: solid.
"Let me tell you a story," the lich said, abandoning its place in front of Kipling to begin pacing the room, in a quite human way.
"Once there were two young people, a lad and a lass, who both entered the priesthood of the goddess of funerals -- you'll forgive me if I don't pronounce her name; I've had a bit of a falling out with her. In any event, the lad chose the priesthood to explore the great unanswered questions of life and death. The lass, on the other hand, wanted to help people, easing them through their times of loss at the death of a loved one. I'll not ask you which you think was the nobler goal.
"It chanced to happen that the two fell in love, a union of souls such that comes only once in life. Eventually, their chosen paths tore them apart, he taking to magecraft and she to religious quests. They did not see each other for decades."
Kipling remained silent, absorbing the story for what it could tell him of the lich's personality, and possibly its weaknesses.
"And then, one day, the two chanced to meet again, though on opposite sides of a conflict -- he, a master necromancer, and she a venerated senior priest. To accomplish their separate goals, they would have to kill each other, but no matter how ruthless the necromancer was or how adamant against evil she was, they could not bring themselves to raise arms against each other, for fear of destroying the one soul in the universe that used to so complement their own.
"The necromancer at that time was already beginning the process of transforming himself to a higher order of being, though one outside the so-called 'natural world.' Such a thing offended her sensibilities, just as the thought of her growing old and dying disgusted him.
"For the sake of memories, though, they agreed to disagree, and on that day made a pact, never to interfere with each other's attempts at immortality. And so far, the pact, nearly a hundred years old, has never been broken, though half its oath-givers have lain decaying in the earth for almost that long."
Kipling's mind was whirring. What had this to do with him?
"The name of the lass was Leradrill Malchanor, your great-grandmother. And you, as one of her offspring, are her chosen means to immortality. To preserve the pact, I cannot slay you."
Kipling almost smiled. "No matter what?"
"Don't press your already stretched luck!" the lich snapped. "My existence is everything. Absolutely everything! If you come to end it, armed only with the remnants of a century-old promise, have no doubt you'll be seeing your great-grandmother far sooner than you would wish."
"I see. So now what?"
"Now, my good paladin, I intend to extend the pact to you. In exchange for sparing your life, here, today, and in exchange for the vow never to harass you or your offspring, you will swear to me to tell no one of my existence, and to never interfere in my affairs, for as long as you live."
"No deal, lich," Kipling said.
"Listen to me, foul thing. I know you. I know your kind, and now I know you. They trained me well: what type of twisted personality becomes a lich, and what types can survive in that existence. I know what sustains you, what keeps you from succumbing to the non-existence that skirts you at every turn.
"Your will. Even more than your perverted desire for self-preservation, it is your willpower that keeps you from going mad, from listening to the dark whispers that plague the corners of your mind. Your word is your bond, as it is mine. To deny it is to deny the center of your being. Violate your pact to Leradrill, even in self-defense, and I'm certain that the walls you've built up against insanity will come crashing down. Maybe not soon, but if your plan is to last all the way to eternity, you won't make it."
Kipling stopped, gasping for breath, his outburst draining the strength from his wounded chest.
The lich pondered. "I see. So you wish to negotiate new terms..."
"... in order to prevent me from forcing you to slay me. I know now that my death can bring down a horrendous evil; I'm not afraid to die for that."
"I know. There is nothing worth giving up an eternity for, but you mortals might think twenty more years of life a fair trade. Name your terms."
"First, the lives of my two comrades here, if they are alive."
"They are. Done."
"Second, the lives of the kidnapped townspeople."
"The ones you came here to save. Done."
Kipling started at the lich's easy submission. "You care so little for your ritual?"
The lich smiled, a truly frightening sight. "You mortals have no grasp of my time, set against an eternity. Once I achieved this state, I spent three years without moving at all, locked in meditation to unlock the secrets of my own mind. Once that was accomplished, I spent the next fifteen in the same chair, exploring the facets of my Talent to an extent greater than any living psionicist.
"I excavated this citadel, and recovered the Condor treasure, not because others could not, but because others did not have the patience to wait five years for a return. In the two decades I have been here, I have learned enough about the magics of earth and fire to cause Vulcanic eruptions, or prevent them. It matters not. Come back in a millenium, and watch me move continents. Come back in ten, and see a new god take his place in the heavens. Against spans of time such as that, a delay of a year in my ritual will matter not at all. I have other things to do. Consider it done."
Kipling was silent. This was the tricky one.
"And finally," he said, "you must stop taking lives, stop kidnapping, stop torturing, stop interfering in all ways with the affairs of the living."
"Out of the question!" the lich said. "You ask too much!"
Kipling considered. He hoped there was some shred of humanity left in this thing, or his argument would fall to dust.
"I believe you have some semblance of honor, lich. Try to see it from my point of view. I have taken an oath to Mygonnil, an oath that holds above all others, to seek out and destroy evil. I am willing to bend that oath to the extent of not considering you intrinsically evil, but if I ever hear tales of your kidnapping townsfolk for foul purposes again, I will be honor-bound to seek you out, and we will be drawn into conflict again."
The lich thought. "Though you may not believe me now, one day you will learn of my true identity -- I see your curiosity will allow nothing less -- and find that several times I adventured with paladins not unlike yourself. I see your quandary, and understand it."
It paused. "Perhaps you will accept this compromise. I will vow to not interfere with the affairs of the living, to such a degree that is in my power to prevent it -- I will not tolerate raiders, for instance -- for as long as you live. After that, our vow is ended, and only Leradrill's remains in effect, which would still protect your offspring, should you ever decide to procreate. I warn you, try my patience no farther."
Kipling thought carefully, then nodded, seeing no way to take the oath further. "And in return, I will vow never to interfere in your affairs, directly or indirectly, to such a degree that it is in my power to prevent it, for as long as I live."
The lich smiled. "When you return to the lands of the living, you will claim to have slain me. Your friends will believe you. But you will never reveal this location -- and your friends will find that they cannot recall it. It probably won't matter, I was thinking of relocating soon in any event."
Kipling thought hard. "You want me to lie?"
"Yes," the lich said. "Your great-grandmother did, after all, when she claimed to have slain me all those years ago. There is no other way of keeping your vow; you realize that."
Kipling did indeed. He nodded.
"We are agreed? Excellent." The lich waved his hand at the shackles holding Kipling's wrists, and they popped open, depositing the paladin on the floor.
The lich extended his skeletal hand. And Kipling did the hardest thing his life as a paladin had called upon him to do.
He took it in his own, and shook it.
The townspeople had arrived, with a teleporting pop, in the midst of a field outside the small hamlet of Brigden, where the kidnappings had begun nearly two weeks previously. Flaran, Marjorie, and Kipling had popped in moments later, to help with reviving the comatose villagers.
Kipling's story was accepted without question: an evil lich, an epic battle, the decapitating death stroke, everything. Even his partially healed near-fatal wounds added credence to his tale -- had the lich actually healed him? Flaran and Marjorie noted no gaps in their memory, and never brought up the missing treasure of the Condors.
The tale was repeated throughout the kingdom, and every time he heard it Kipling cringed, hearing the echoes of his own lies tearing at his soul. He wondered, were Leradrill's last years as tormented? Did she regret suffering evil to exist for the sake of love, and a compromise?
What, in fact, had he purchased with his life?
The lives of a dozen people, and possibly the lives of hundreds more over the decades left in his life.
But how long would he live? Twenty years, thirty at the most, and only if he was never slain in battle....
No longer could he risk his life to save a few others, now that the lives of many more rested upon his shoulders, depended on the beating of his own heart to sustain their own.
He would have to resign from the Knighthood, to spend his remaining days as carefully as he could. But he could tell no one of the reason why -- his vow absolutely prevented it. Even if he could bring himself to go against his word, to stare himself in the eye and admit his soul was worthless, it wouldn't do any good. Unless he could destroy the lich before it knew of his treachery, which he knew to be all but impossible, he was sure that the vengeance the monster would wreak on the world would be a holocaust.
On top of everything else, his sword had shocked him when he tried to draw it again. His soul was tainted, in its estimation. He would have to pass it on to some other, more worthy Knight.
He had bought a respite with his life, his honor, and his reputation, but only a respite. He would dread the day he would lie, old and gray, on his deathbed, knowing that the minute he stopped breathing would hearken an ancient evil back into the world, an evil with the power to cause earthquakes at its merest whim.
The lich was patient.
It could wait.