CHAPTER FOUR--The Hounds a-hunting

Sand Castle Island wasn’t truly an island, but rather a great rock of granite thrusting up out of the depths of the sea to rise nearly a thousand feet high at its peak. What Raven called a villa, that anyone else would call a fortress, had been cunningly built into the southern side of the great monolith, overlooking the sea. Its granite ramparts, majestic but lonely looking, spread out in three great wings several stories high to the south, west and east. Below it rose a great black tower whose tip could be seen from the dock below, though the mossy cliffs down at sea level hid most of it from view.

As the enchanted portal vanished behind them, the pair emerged at the end of a spruce-planked dock at the western side of a small inlet formed by a peninsula of rock that wrapped round in a semicircle from west to east, forming a breakwater. It was here that two vessels were moored. The one next to them was a strange little ship. It wasn’t very wide, or very tall, but was over a hundred feet long. Its most notable feature was the fore of the vessel where the bow rose up out of the water as elegantly as the neck of a swan, it stout oaken planks sweeping up until they formed the figurehead of a dragon at the prow. The stern was similarly shaped where the dragon’s tail was carved and a large oar affixed to function as a rudder. The deck was open but for a red-and-white striped canopy just behind the mast. Square holes had been cut in the hull to allow oarsmen to row the ship despite the fact that it possessed a single mast and sail. In all, it didn’t look like the sturdiest ship she’d ever seen, but it was indeed a very graceful looking vessel.

“This is a queer boat,” Doremi noted, peering up and down at the dragon ship.

Raven nodded. “Not my sort of a ship either,” she answered.

The Bard thought for a moment. “You know,” she said, “I think I once saw a drawing of a boat like this. This looks like a Scandian boat.”

“Very good!” Raven complimented as she stepped to the Bard’s side and looked over to the vessel. “That’s just what she is. It's called the Windhawk. She belongs to some guests of mine.”

Doremi’s brown eyes widened. “There are Scandians here?!” she muttered.

“Yes. They're--friends of my cousin, who is staying with me right now.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet a Scandian--in a safe environment, of course,” Doremi added. “Are they as big as they say?”

“They are!” Raven confirmed. “One of them, in fact, is the biggest man I’ve ever laid eyes on. The rest, which aren’t quite as tall, are still a bunch of long shanks compared to the average Torrencian, I can tell you.”

“Are they safe to have around?”

Raven twisted her head back and forth, pondering the question. “These aren’t too bad,” she finally answered. “You just need to understand their ways. They’re like Gladiators: Fighting is what they live for. They only respect strength, so you need to--either be tougher than them so they’ll respect you; or else treat them as honored warriors, and you’ll get along fine with them. Unfortunately, their table manners leave much to be desired--Morgaine would fit in just fine with them!”

Doremi took a look back to the Windhawk.

“And they sailed all the way across the world from Scandia to Freeport in this odd boat? That’s hard to believe.”

“I know,” the Mistress of Freeport agreed. “I guess it’s stouter than it looks, and they’re better sailors than outward appearances would suggest. I certainly wouldn’t go to sea in a craft like that. In Freeport, we have real ships! Now this,” Raven added, moving down the dock and sweeping her hand, “--is mine.”

The vessel she gestured to was nothing like the first. In fact, it was one of the most beautiful ships Doremi had ever seen. Strong and graceful, she floated serenely behind the Windhawk, her two thick masts soaring proudly above the deck. A web of black rigging crowned her, forming innumerable tendrils to every corner of the vessel, conveying an impression not merely of function, but of nobility in the sense that they boasted the means by which mastery of the sea itself was obtained.

Her two masts sported five huge square sails that propelled the ship, while the mainmast near the stern sprouted a gaff and boom stretching back to the helm where a sixth sail, even larger than the others, was employed. In keeping with Raven’s sense of taste, the ship was elegantly painted in blue, red and yellow, with accents of white and gold.

Below the spear-like bowsprit was mounted a figurehead of a vicious-looking scorpion poised to strike, its tail rising above its head along the bottom of the bowsprit. Though intimidating, it was an apt decoration, considering letters of gold at the bow boldly spelled out the name Black Scorpion. Finally, two cupolas with windows extended out from the sides of the stern, giving the ship an added feature of beauty and a feminine touch befitting its mistress.

Raven clasped her hands behind her back and looked up and down at the ship, her face beaming like a parent proud of her child.

“Magnificent, isn’t she? She and her sister are the two best ships in the world. A hundred-and-fifty feet long, and two hundred-and-fifty tons’ weight. She’s not the largest ship ever built, but she and the Widow are the two best! Look at her lines, Doremi--all the skill of the seafarer’s trade was poured into her hull of teak and oak. Not one plank of her is held together with nails--we use spikes of ironwood, or we actually tie parts of the ship together with oiled leather and hemp, just as the Arwinians have done for thousands of years, which works far better. One thing the Arwinians have always known how to do is build ships. And move? She and her sister can do twelve knots with a strong wind!”

“Is that good?” Doremi asked.

Yes, that’s good!” Raven exclaimed in response. “Thor claims that dragon boat of his, there, can sail at fifteen knots, but I don’t believe him. The fastest ship in Islay is actually a giant Krellan trireme from Atlantium. Three banks of oars with four hundred rowers! If they beat to ramming speed, that monster can make fifteen knots, but only for a little while. It cruises at seven knots. But the Scorpion and the Widow can do twelve knots so long as they have the right wind, and they cruise at seven knots just like the trireme. They can also handle seas that would sink the trireme.

“You’ll notice,” Raven added, indicating the railings of the main deck, “she doesn’t have a whole lot of freeboard--that’s the height above the waterline to the main deck there. That’s because she’s designed to run through reefs and shallow water, so she was built light. She doesn’t sit very low in the water--again, so she can sail swiftly through shallows. But her twenty-five-foot beam is sturdy, and she can do whatever I call on her to do.”

The Mistress of Freeport held up a finger. “I won’t tell you she’s a comfortable ship to be on in a storm--but then, no ship is. So you will get wet, and you will be uncomfortable, and the seas will wash over her decks. But she won’t flood, and she won’t sink--I built her too well for that! My first ship was marvelous, and she could sail through anything, but this ship represents everything I’ve ever learned about shipbuilding in the last two decades.”

Raven looked her in the eyes. “Of course, I don’t have much cause to use her, what with teleportals and such,” she spoke. “Mostly, we use her every so often when we need to raid the Baratarians if their pirate ships get bold enough to attack Guild vessels. We can overhaul and follow them right into the shallows, so they can’t escape from us. It's good sport sometimes, given my absolute hatred for pirates.”

Doremi grinned at her. “You must really love the sea,” she said to Raven.

As had happened when she spoke of the portrait, Raven’s response wasn’t what Doremi expected: the smile disappeared in an instant, replaced with a frown.

“I despise the sea--and everything to do with it,” Raven answered quietly.

Her mood now altered, she looked down, and then picked up one of Doremi’s bags.

“My tower is up this way,” she said, beginning to walk toward the wharf.

Doremi followed to find a path had been cut through the cliffs and a winding stairway, tiled in multicolored flagstones, wound its way up between the moss-covered granite outcrops.

Soon the pair emerged onto a plateau crowned by a tower absolutely stunning in its scope.

Doremi had seen uncounted towers in her life--but here, on this lonely rock in the middle of nowhere--was Raven’s answer to every petty wizard or Noble in Islay who might have boasted of their own tower’s opulence.

It rose from a carpet of green grass like a giant black finger pointing to the heavens, a huge octagon twice as wide as it was tall. Its base stood five feet above the ground, and a graceful curved stairway of white marble swept the visitor up to a verandah ringing the structure along which a number of wicker chairs beckoned one to come rest and enjoy the view of the sea as scented flowered vines rose and twisted around eaves and arbors, casting their scent about the area.

Words could not adequately describe the care that had been taken in crafting the tower, for every nook and cranny was fashioned in a manner that took functionality and conveyed it as beauty. Even the skirt ‘round the tower’s base was elegantly made of gray stone wrought in diamond-shaped patterns, each ten-foot section of which nestled between two rectangular columns intricately carved with geometric decorations. These columns rose up to balustrades of iron, trimmed in gold leaf and made in the forms of flowers, scrolls or lions, and here each column split into two smaller pillars of fine Krellan marble streaked through with delicate pastel veins of blue and pink, reminiscent of the sea and its whitecaps at dusk. These pillars reached up to the roof of the verandah where they mounted white marble heads of unicorns, silent sentinels looking out in defense of their charge.

It struck Doremi that only the Third School of Sorcery in Serpenalik, itself one gigantic tower nearly five hundred feet tall, could match the aura given off by this marvelous structure which, while far smaller in scope, was vastly more elegant in design.

“What a beautiful tower!” the Bard exclaimed.

“Thank you,” Raven answered. “It’s home, when I’m not in Freeport.”

Doremi momentarily left off admiring the tower to peer up at the complex built onto the plateau above them. “The rest of your villa there,” she spoke. “It looks different. More plain--more normal--than your tower does. Is there a reason for that?”

“Actually, there is,” Raven replied, following her gaze. “I didn’t build it. It’s an old fortress that’s been here--I don’t know...since the First Age, maybe. I took it over after I did Freeport. I suppose in ages past there was more of this island than there is now, and one could walk up to it. Now, though, there is no natural path to it, so I built my tower down below, and constructed a concourse from it to the villa above. I had the interior gutted and refinished according to my own taste, so once you’re inside it looks more like something belonging to me. I think you’ll like it.”

Raven continued on, ascending the stairway to the great doors of her tower, colossal portals of black oak carved with an appropriately nautical ship’s wheel for decoration. Massive spikes of bronze fastened an intricate lacework of iron hinges to the doors, yet despite their size, they easily swung open with appropriately loud creaks as Raven put her shoulder into them and passed beyond to enter the ground floor of the tower.

If the outside of the structure was breathtaking, it gave little hint to the grandeur only a step beyond its doors. Here, at the bottom of the great tower, Doremi ventured into what was perhaps the most magnificent room she had ever laid eyes on. Great shafts of orange light from the sunset sky thrust their way into the gigantic open rotunda through dazzling windows of crystal set into vaulted frames of mahogany such as one might see in a cathedral. The chamber was one mammoth gallery of paintings, statuary, jeweled chandeliers, carved marble pillars, heavy ebony tables, and plush velvet furniture where one could dine or relax in sumptuous elegance.

“How beautiful,” Doremi whispered as she looked up and down and around.

mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>This is like stepping into a dreammso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>. A ball fit for a King or Queen of Islay could be given in here, she thought.

“It’s home, like I mentioned,” answered Raven quietly, setting down Doremi's bag. “Here, people leave me alone, and I have no problems, and no cares, and the world stops at my door. Here, I can enjoy the quiet in my nest of beauty, where nothing can harm me or upset me...or so I lie to myself and try to believe.”

Doremi took a whiff of the air, and smiled. “Oh! Something smells pretty!” she exclaimed.

Raven’s mood had improved again, and she smiled in turn. “That’s my garden,” she said proudly. “It’s on the fourth level, where I’ve got a selection of fruit trees and vines. My Druid, Witherwane, tends it, and we use spells to make sure it bears fruit all year long.”

Doremi was amazed. “You use magic to make things grow better?” she asked.

Raven nodded.

“Hmm,” Doremi exclaimed.

“Every so often, a bee wanders down here and makes a nuisance of itself,” her hostess continued, “but my Druid insists they’re necessary for the trees to bear fruit. I’m not certain I believe her, but I humor her to keep her happy.”

The Bard glanced down. The floor--if such a mundane word could be found worthy to refer to the scope of what her feet stood upon--was a parquet of innumerable polished black and white marble tiles perfectly fitted to form smooth checkerboard squares, five feet wide, of geometric mosaics occasionally hidden only by thick throw rugs of scarlet or midnight blue, emblazoned with decorations made from threads of gold and silver.

Doremi took her gaze from the floor and peered upward. Twenty-five feet above was a plastered ceiling, predictably ornate with its gingerbread fret work trimmed in gold, and fashioned in such a way that the ivory and diamond chandeliers sprouting from it at varying heights almost reminded one of delicate snowflakes floating down from the misty winter sky.

But for all its beauty, the ceiling was outdone by the center of the room, which was a thirty-foot open circle all the way up the four stories to where a roof of brass and leaded crystal crowned the tower, bestowing the beauty of the blue sky in the daytime and the majesty of the stars at night.

“Ah ah ah ah ah ah ahhhhhhhhhhh....”

Doremi sang the Scales and stopped, listening as her voice echoed its way up the tower.

“This room is marvelous for music, Raven!” she eventually said.

The Mistress of Freeport chuckled. “There’s a harp and a piano over there,” she added with a gesture. “Feel free to use them. It’ll be good to hear some music in my tower for once. I don’t think it’ll disturb me--unless it’s too late at night.”

From the very center of the roof above, a cable hung down nearly to the floor, where a ball of brilliant gold over a foot wide swung back and forth like a pendulum, a spike on its bottom passing over a series of golden Krellan numerals.

Doremi twisted her head to look at it.

“Raven, is that ball made of gold?! And what is it doing?” she asked.

“Well, it’s hollow,” answered Raven with a laugh. “It has to be. You would be amazed at what a ball that size of solid gold would weigh--it’d pull down the roof! Even hollow, though, the ball weighs something like fourteen stones. This is called a clock.”

“I saw Desmore’s clock, but it wasn’t like this,” Doremi exclaimed.

“True,” Raven acknowledged. “Wighead clocks use springs and gears. This clock doesn’t use anything but a ball and a cable. It works all by itself. What it does is swing and point to the time as shown by the numbers on the floor. See there?” she asked, pointing to the ball as it swung toward a large XI. “It’s nearing the eleventh hour now.”

Doremi was amazed. “Is it magic?” she asked.

Raven shook her head. “No, it does it all by itself. All you have to do is hang the ball from a cable, and it will start moving all by itself until it reaches the speed you see it moving at now. It then stays at that speed and takes a full twenty hours to make a compass to its starting point. No one knows why or how it does it. I suppose it’s a mystery.”

Beyond the clock, against the north side of the room, stood the next wonder of the room, a massive fireplace beyond the scope of any Doremi had ever seen: A titanic edifice of white marble sculpted into a frieze of lions and unicorns whose cavernous mouth was so broad that six large men could easily stand within its shadowy confines.

Circling round the clock, Doremi drew near to the north side of the chamber, awed by the fireplace.

“This is by far the largest fireplace I’ve ever seen, Raven,” she spoke, placing her bags down. “I thought your inn had some big fireplaces, but this...!”

“Well, if I do say so myself, I think it’s the nicest fireplace in Islay,” Raven responded. “There’s one in the palace of the King of Torrencia, though, that’s even larger.”

“Do tell?”

Above the fireplace hung a large flag that stretched across its fifteen-foot width. It was a proud banner of white silk exploding in a brilliant red sunburst whose rays shot forth in all directions. Upon it was silhouetted a black raven, its wings outstretched in a manner so as to give it a circular form complimentary to the disc of the sun which it overlaid.

“Is that the flag of Freeport?” Doremi asked Raven, nodding up to the banner.

“Pretty much,” Raven answered, following her gaze. “Technically, the flag of Freeport is the sun without the raven in it. That, there, is my personal banner.”

She stepped to Doremi and folded her gloved hands behind her back in pride. “In fact, it's actually a historic artifact. That was the banner I flew from the masthead of my flagship when I brought the first grain convoy into Torrence.”

Raven looked over to the Bard. “I was a national hero in Torrencia for a time, did you know that?”

“No, really?” asked Doremi.

Raven nodded. “I was twenty-one, and had just consolidated my power in Freeport. Torrencia back then had been going through a horrible blight. You probably don’t remember it because you were likely still in Avalon then. But they were in the seventh year of a bad famine--one even worse than the blight they’re in now. There were food riots in Torrence, the Baronies were filled with sedition, and the Highlanders were in open revolt against the Counts. Then, along came me with a fleet of grain ships to the rescue. I was their salvation, and they all loved me because I broke the back of the famine with my Krellan grain. The morning I sailed into Torrence, standing boldly at the prow of my flagship, was one of the proudest days of my life. I was a hero to the Torrencians for years afterward.

“Of course,” she mused, “with time, memories fade, and with it one’s popularity. But it worked out fine--I used my popularity when it was strongest and could accomplish the most for me, and I cemented my power over Torrencia in part because of it. Now they can’t survive without me.”

“I’m all that keeps them from starving,” she boasted quietly. “Without me, Torrencia dies. Without me, in fact, all Islay dies. But very few understand that.”

Sure enough, Doremi thought the comment odd, though she didn’t press her hostess to elaborate. Presumably, Raven meant that the Guild was now indispensable to Islay in her opinion.

To both the right and left of the fireplace was a pair of marble archways, numbered one through four in Krellan numerals that at first Doremi took to be merely decorative facades. But as she looked closer, she observed that each surface of the walls within them was faintly glowing.

“Those are teleportals for getting up and down the tower quickly, when one is too lazy to use the stairs,” Raven explained.

Doremi looked back in amazement. “You mean these are permanent teleportals?!” she asked. “Is that possible? I never heard of anyone making such a thing--but the idea is wonderful!”

Raven nodded. “It normally doesn’t work, but we found the means to create it, something no one else has been able to do--at least that I’m aware of. So no one realizes all the great possibilities of it.”

The Mistress of Freeport moved forward. “Follow me.”

Raven stepped through portal II, and vanished. Quickly, Doremi followed behind, magically stepping out onto the landing of the second story, where she leaned out against a railing to gaze down upon the clock below.

Raven spread out her hands and turned back to the Bard. “See? Easy as that.”

Doremi took a quick glance around. The landing ran around the inner circumference of the second story, and ringing it were several doorways leading to other smaller chambers. Directly behind the two were situated three arched portals, their function now obvious.

Raven walked back through portal I, and Doremi again followed, stepping back into the main floor.

“I like this, Raven. It sure spares wear and tear on one’s feet!” she noted.

Raven shrugged. “True enough. I usually take the stairs, myself. I enjoy the walk, and it gives me time to daydream.”

Her hostess picked up Doremi’s bag and began to move back toward the clock. “You know, we’re in the process of trying to enchant a huge gate allowing ships to sail between Freeport and Torrence,” she added. “Once it’s done, that will be the end of four-month voyages. Crews will be back and forth within a few days. It’ll be a marvelous step forward for the Guild--prices of goods will drop a bit for the public because of the ease of travel, but Guild revenues will actually increase along with the members’ profits.”

The last and greatest feature of the chamber was what Doremi concluded was the most magnificent stairway in all of Islay. It lay at the east side of the room, a wonder of marble that flowed out like a cascading waterfall in a great semicircle thirty feet wide flanked by two bases mounting a pair of massive lions roaring in challenge, each with a paw uplifted toward any enemy foolish enough to challenge them.

The stairway’s three-inch steps, overlaid by a regal carpet of blue and gold, gently ascended thirty feet up to the next level where Doremi’s eyes were drawn to a statue of a five-foot sphinx serenely looking out over the chamber below it. Here, on this landing, the covered concourse began and the landing split off, permitting one either to walk back into the tower at its second story, or else take either of two stairways to the tower’s upper levels. The main stairway, meanwhile, leveled off here for twenty feet or so to give one a chance to catch her breath without tiring from the climb, then the gentle ascent began again to another landing, and in this manner one finally reached the upper complex.

“I see you like lions,” Doremi observed as they approached the stairs.

“Yes--they’re very regal, I think,” Raven said, pausing to look up at one of the huge statues.

Oh, I agree!” Doremi answered. “Have you ever seen a real one close up?”

“Actually I once owned one. I wanted to make a pet out of him, but he was just too wild. We tried turning him into a familiar for one of my Witches, and she ordered him to obey me, but he never liked me and always wanted to be with her--plus he smelled too animally for me anyway, so that was that. But I did once keep a lap lion as a pet. He was great!”

“What’s a ‘lap lion’?” asked the Bard.

“It’s a small lion about the size of a dog,” answered Raven. “One of my people found him in Hocwrath, and brought him back to me as a present.”

“Oh, how cute!”

Raven nodded. “But for a pin Stormie made for me, he was the best present I ever got; I’ve never seen another. I took him everywhere with me.”

Raven started the climb up. “His name was Nefertiti,” she added.

“That’s a good name--she was the wife of a great Pharaoh!” Doremi exclaimed. Then, in a whimsical mood, she did a little jump to get upon the stairway as she followed her hostess, a move that caught Raven’s attention.

mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>Is this girl always so happy? mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>she wondered.

Doremi thought for a moment, then reached out and grasped Raven’s arm, stopping her.

“Wait--you can’t name a lion Nefertiti,” she exclaimed.

The Mistress of Freeport looked back to her. “Why not?”

“Nefertiti is a girl’s name--you can’t give a boy lion a girl’s name.”

“Who says?” Raven demanded. “He was my lion, and I could name him what I wanted! He didn’t raise any objections to it.”

Doremi laughed. “Well, I guess if it was all the same to him.... What happened to Nefertiti, anyway?”

“Well,” Raven said sadly, “he died after a year, unfortunately. I was fit to be tied, I was so mad; and I tried to find a Druid who could restore him to life, but there was nothing they could do so I buried him in one of the squares of Freeport, and erected a monument to him. If you haven’t seen it, it’s inscribed Here lyes the most noble lyon who ever trod the lands of Islay.

“Yeah, I understand,” Doremi answered softly. “When I was small, my only friend was my dog Edmund, but I had to leave him when they sent me away to the Ecclesiastical School. I cried and cried for weeks. It was like losing my mother. I suppose that’s how strong the bond can be between people and animals. You sometimes come to love them just like they were one of your family.”

“That’s why only fools have pets,” Raven observed, starting to climb once again.

They paused at the first landing where Doremi admired the sphinx statue, running a hand over its smooth, onyx surface.

“What a wonderful statue!” she exclaimed.

“Thank you. I brought it back from the Sultan’s palace in Serendib when the Guild took over the city. I’ve always admired sphinxes. They’re magnificently beautiful--far more so than that statue conveys.”

“You’ve actually seen one?! Close up?!”

Raven nodded. “Uh huh. In fact, I once out-riddled a sphinx, did you know that?”

Doremi looked up in shock. “You did not! That’s impossible!”

“I did so,” Raven insisted.

“Raven--sphinxes have all knowledge. That’s why they play riddle games with Humans--because they know the answer to all riddles, and they’re amused when Humans try to find a riddle they don’t know the answer to, so they take the challenge and wind up with all the Human’s valuables when they win. You can’t out-riddle them!”

“You can when you ask them a riddle with two possible answers,” answered Raven smugly.

Doremi gasped. “You cheated in a riddle game with a sphinx?!” she whispered in shock.

“Who said I cheated? I merely asked him a riddle dealing with golden treasures inside of boxes.”

Doremi thought for a moment.

“I know that one!” she exclaimed. “Everybody knows that one!”

“Yes, but how many people were looking for a beehive as the answer?”

Doremi pondered the statement.

“You’re right,” she finally said. “That answer would work too. But you still cheated!”

“I did not; I merely projected that the sphinx would give the typical answer, and thus I chose another answer equally appropriate.”

Doremi squinted at her. “And if he had said ‘a beehive’--what then?” she asked.

Raven smiled. “He didn’t, so I suppose we’ll never know, will we?”

She chuckled and raised her right hand and tapped the side of Doremi’s head with her index finger. “You defeat your opponents by out-thinking them, not necessarily by outfighting them, Doremi,” she said. “Always remember that.”

“You’re still lucky the sphinx didn’t kill you on the spot!” the Bard insisted.

“Well...he was less than pleased, and I suspect no one ever got away with that again on him. But we were desperate to find a lost city in the desert, and we figured only a sphinx could tell us where it was. So I took it upon myself to accomplish the task at hand, and did so. The rest of my group should have had faith in me--I knew what I was doing. I always know what I’m doing.”

Talk about a lost Karnaki city quickly had Doremi’s rapt attention.

“What lost city? Where did you hear about it? What did you do? I want to know all about it!”

Raven’s demeanor suddenly changed.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Doremi was polite enough to realize that pushing her hostess would be in bad taste, so--disappointed--she leaned over and instead glanced down at the hieroglyphs on the base of the statue. Only a few flecks of paint remained from the original grandeur of the inscription, but fortunately the carvings were still clearly visible.

“Wait a minute--you can read those words!” her hostess suddenly realized. “I’ve always wanted to know what they say! We tried a spell that causes inscriptions upon stone to speak out their message, but it didn’t do a thing.”

“You’re not the first to try that,” Doremi replied. “The theory is that it doesn’t work because the inscriptions are pictures and not true letters. But yeah--I can read it. It says: I am Atum, the great he-she, father of all gods, mother of all creation. I am Atum, who sits upon the clouds whose feet stand upon the ground. I am Atum who have exalted myself to sit as lord of the sky. Look upon me, and tremble.

“So Atum is the name of the sphinx, then?” asked Raven.

Doremi shook her head. “No, Atum was an ancient hermaphrodite Karnaki God. He was a male/female deity who supposedly created some of the other Karnaki gods. He, uh, wasn’t real popular, and was quickly replaced by the other pantheon of Karnaki deities. The sphinx was a representation of him in early Karnaki history.”

“How fascinating,” Raven spoke. “Thank you--I’ve always wanted to know what those picture-words meant. I’m so fortunate to have found you.”

“Well, perhaps you’ll sometime tell me about your adventures in Arwin,” prompted Doremi.

“Perhaps,” Raven answered unenthusiastically.

“Oh, to adventure in Arwin,” Doremi began to muse as she waved her hands about. “The glistening sands of the desert in the moonlight...the crystal clear water of an oasis...the shelter of a date palm as a soft desert wind blows through it....”

“You’ve never been to Arwin, have you?” Raven asked.

“Well, no,” Doremi admitted,”--but I know all about it.”

Raven nodded. “Right,” she said dryly. “So you know all about how the sand gets into every pore of your body...how the blistering hot sun causes your sweat to combine with the sand on your clothes to make a ghastly, abrasive paste that rubs your flesh raw. You know how even a slight breeze whips the sand up into your eyes and stings them for hours afterward. You know how quickly you can disappear into desert quicksand, and be swallowed up. You know how enjoyable the sting of a scorpion is that crawls into your blanket with you at night. You’re aware of the incomparable experience of your swollen tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth because of the lack of water. You know about all of those things, right?”

Raven could see Doremi’s enthusiasm melt away into disappointment.

“That’s adventuring in Arwin, Doremi. What you describe is true only near the coast, where the country is green. Beyond the coast, in the desert--only the Land of Shadows, in Hocwrath, can compare to it. I’m not certain which is worse. There’s nothing romantic about the desert, Doremi. A thousand different ways to die--all of them unpleasant. My sister and our group all died there. Never mistake the comfort of Adventuring in Torrencia or Avalon with the hell of Arwin--there’s no comparison.”

They began the ascent once more, and Doremi said, “So I guess you’re not married, huh?”

Raven’s scowl was more than sufficient to answer, and the two ascended the concourse until they finally reached the upper villa where Doremi could see that this was indeed an old structure that had been renovated according to her hostess’ taste. The outer walls were buttressed with typical large blocks while the inside was fashioned from small unfinished stones mortared into place, reminding one of a traditional castle or keep in Avalon or Torrencia. It was all very functional rather than decorative, but wherever possible the walls had been plastered or paneled over to smarten them up; and the roughhewn timbers arching up the sides of the walls to reinforce the ceiling above them, together with carpeting overlaying the original flagstone floor, made the structure look more inviting. Suits of armor--standing noble but lifeless--tapestries of velvet, and many paintings decorated the walls, while candle sconces and chandeliers lit the various galleries and passages.

Raven pointed to a set of stairs ahead of them leading up to the second story. “Up there is the dining room. Let’s drop the bags here for a moment, and I’ll show it to you.”

She led Doremi up the stairs to the second story, pausing before the stately double doors that led into the chamber.

“The dining room is behind those doors there,” she explained. Then she gestured to another glowing portal, similar to the ones in the tower, situated next to them. “Follow me.”

Doremi obliged, and stepped out into a huge kitchen filled with everything from cooks to servers. Literally, dozens of people were at work here.

“This is the main kitchen of the Inn,” Raven shouted over the din. “This portal leads from here to the villa. No one comes through here unless they know who it is. Makes it the safest place to have it, since everyone knows everyone else, and any strangers would be spotted in a moment if they tried sneaking through.”

Raven stepped forward.

“Attention!” she shouted, and instantly the din died down as several dozen workers paused and looked their way. “This is Lady Doremi Bender, from Avalon,” Raven continued, in a voice loud enough for all to hear. “She’ll be running our Institute of Music when it’s built. She’s cleared to use this portal.”

Dozens of eyes now looked Doremi over and faces nodded in understanding.

Embarrassed, Doremi managed a polite wave, and Raven then retreated back through the portal with the Bard following.

“The servants and some of my people have quarters on this floor,” Raven added once they had returned to the silence of the villa.

The two then returned to the lower floor of the villa and Raven next indicated a hallway leading west. “The Scandians are down there. Mind that you don’t go exploring that way. Stay out of the west wing!

Doremi was bright enough to figure out she was alluding to her incursion downstairs in the cellar.

“Your room is down here,” her hostess continued, starting to walk eastward after retrieving Doremi's bag.

Raven eventually led the Bard to a chamber looking out upon the bay, which proved to be a charming mix of both Torrencian and Arwinian style, with pillars of stone supporting a vaulted roof, a thick maroon carpet, shuttered windows with glass panes set into a diamond-shaped lattice work of iron, a writing table, and a small fireplace that had been made from a slab of sandstone decorated with ancient Karnaki hieroglyphs. After a few more minutes of small talk, Raven excused herself and left Doremi to settle in for the night.

What Doremi appreciated most about the room was a four-post canopied bed that was so large--even in comparison to her bed at the Inn--which an entire family could fit within it. Now, left by herself, she took one look, set her bag and instruments down--and ran straight for it, somersaulting onto the blue velvet bedspread, landing with a comfortable SPLAT.

She reached out and used one of the posts to help steady her as she stood up--still a good two feet below the top of the canopy. Then she jumped up and down upon the nice firm mattress like a trampoline. Finally, she plopped back and stretched out sideways--something she’d always dreamed of doing in a bed large enough to permit it--and then placed her hands behind her head, looking up to the canopy which portrayed a delightful panorama of the night sky and the constellations.

mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>Let’s pitch our tent right heremso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>, she thought. All the good you’ve done in your life has now paid off, and this is the reward. You’ll never climb any higher; this is as good as it will ever get--and that’s perfectly fine with me.

With that, Doremi let out her breath and wondered how she could possibly have been so fortunate.

She slept well that night, and early the next morning awakened and decided that it would be a good time to stretch her voice. After dressing, she strolled toward the concourse. It was silent this early in the morning, and not a sound greeted her ears. The Bard planned on finding a nice quite spot where she could practice without disturbing anyone, and eventually found herself down at the end of the docks, which she thought would do nicely. Once settled, she took in a breath, and began to sing.

“Ah ah ah ah ah ah ahhhhhhhhhhh.....”

“Ah ah ah ah ah ah ahhhhhhhhhhh....,” she sang again, raising the key.

She sang the Scales three more times, raising the key each time until finally her voice cracked.

mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>Oops, she thought. Gotta work on that.

“Mi mi mi mi mi miiiiiiiiiii...” she continued.

It was then that there came a husky, incomprehensible male voice from her side that was a cross between a grunt and a curse word in some language she didn’t know.

Doremi jumped and looked in the direction of the voice--which was coming from the Windhawk, where a tired-looking face with bloodshot eyes was peering over the side of the railing, looking at her. A long blonde beard, wet with flecks of foam and spittle, matched stringy hair of the same color sprouting from the head of the man, who looked to be in his fifties.

It was a Scandian!

And not just a Scandian, but a Scandian who looked like he had a hangover!

“I-I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I thought I was alone. I came down here to practice singing so I wouldn’t bother anyone.

“Oh!” she exclaimed suddenly. “Do-you-speak-Tor-ren-ci-an?!” she asked, her voice raising in volume.

“Old?” the inebriated face grunted.


“Wouldst thou I speak unto thee in the tongue of yore?” asked the man.

“Nay--I mean no!” Doremi answered, her voice still loud. “New Torrencian is fine! I hate Old Torrencian; it reminds me of an Ecclesiastical School!”

“I’m not deaf, woman!” he answered, pronouncing deaf as deef, and putting his hands to his ears.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Doremi apologized, lowering the volume of her voice. “You speak Torrencian very well,” she complimented.

The Scandian nodded. “What’s an ‘Ecclesiastical School’?” he asked. “Some sort of Wizard School where they teach you to cast spells?”

“No--it’s a place where parents send children they don’t want, to be raised.”

“We don’t have those in Scandia,” the man muttered.

“I guess that’s a point for Scandia,” Doremi replied.

“You’re a damsel from Torrencia, I take it?” he asked.

“No, I’m actually from Avalon.”

The Scandian nodded, then looked around for something, and reached down to come up with a ceramic bottle. Licking his lips, he tipped it up, trying to drain any remaining liquid, but the bottle was dry; and with a grunt, the Scandian tossed it away.

“Out of mead,” he mumbled. Then he coughed a couple of times and broke into a coughing spasm until he finally hacked up and spit over the side.

Doremi wasn’t certain what to do, and so she stood stiffly still, figuring she could probably outrun the Scandian if he made any move toward her.

The man rubbed his nose and ran his husky forearm across his whiskers to dry them.

“You have a voice like a Skald,” he noted quietly.

“What’s a ‘Skald’?” the Bard asked.

“They’re chronicalers...or is it chroniclers?” he asked rubbing his head. He looked away, trying to decide. Finally, he shrugged and gave up.

“They learn the legends of our people, and sing them to us,” he continued.

Then he belched and punched his gut twice with his fist.

“Oh!” Doremi exclaimed. “I’m one of those! I’m a Bard--that’s our word for a Skald. My name is Doremi Bender.”

The Scandian nodded. “I’m Thor...King of Walrus clan.”

“You’re the King of Scandia?!”

“King of Walrus clan...largest of the eight clans of Scandia. We are allies with Fire and Narwhal clan, and enemies of Bear and Ice clans.”

“Is ‘Walrus’ the name of your ancestor?” Doremi asked.

The Scandian licked his lips, then looked down to the deck, reached over, and placed an iron helmet sprouting a pair of wings from its sides upon his half-bald head. A neck guard came down over his eyes and he realized the helmet was on backwards, so he fumbled with both hands to turn it around into place. With his left hand, he patted a decoration of an unusual animal atop the helmet that resembled some sort of a dog with flippers that sprouted two gigantic teeth.

“That’s a walrus,” he said.

“What a fearsome-looking beast!” Doremi exclaimed.

Thor nodded. “Can kill a man with one flick of its tail. We Norse hunt them for their blubber and skins. Only thing worse in Scandia--other than the giants--is the great white bear of the far North. He’s the most powerful of all beasts.”

“Worse than a snap dragon?” Doremi asked. “One of those can bite a leg off an elephant, let alone what it does to the arms and legs of people.”

“Never seen a snap dragon and don’t know what an elephant is,” Thor muttered. “Can’t be any worse unless a snap dragon breathes fire as well.”

“They don’t; they just snap at you.”

Thor coughed again and his voice changed pitch to a more normal tone.

His grogginess was clearly abating.

“Good morrow to you, by the way. My name is Thor.”

“Thank you,” Doremi answered, smiling to herself.

“You one of Raven’s Witches?” he asked.

“No--I’m a Bard,” she repeated.

He nodded again, remembering. “You part of the main Fellowship, or the Support teams?”


“The Liche--are you in the Assault team? Or are you part of the other teams?”

“Neither; I don’t want any part of fighting a Liche! I’m just going to run the Music Institute.”

Nodding, Thor coughed once more and then placed his hands upon the railing of the ship to stable himself as he rose to his feet. Only now, as he stood upon the deck of his ship, did Doremi comprehend how big he was as she craned her head to keep eye contact with him. She’d seen ogres that were shorter, for the Scandian was seven feet if he was an inch!

He was so tall that if the Bard stood on her toes she wouldn’t have come up to his shoulders. Biceps as large and powerful as those from a statue of Mars rippled and nearly burst through the brown leather jerkin that tightly clung to his skin. His muscular thighs were wide as her waist, and the legs sprouting from them looked as solid as a pair of oak trees. A leather girdle with brass studs held up his pants, and from it, at his right side, hung a huge hammer, its wide head of blackened iron sprouting from a leather-wrapped wooden shaft. Most people would have needed two hands to swing it, yet Doremi could see that Thor’s massive right hand could easily heft the weapon, leaving his left hand free for a shield. There wasn’t the slightest question in the Bard’s mind that this giant could also snap the spine of an ogre with his bare hands if he wanted to.

“Well, I‘m sure we have enough without any more Witches anyway,” Thor continued. “I’ve brought over thirty of the mightiest Vikings from Walrus clan, and twenty of the strongest warriors from Narwhal clan. Between that and the rest, our revenge will come soon enough. They won’t stop us.”

“Oh, yeah,” Doremi supposed. “A big group of like that should be easily able to handle one Liche, even if he has some lesser minions helping him.”

Thor’s brow wrinkled as he looked back at her, and he almost spoke--but he held his peace.

“Well, uh, I’m sorry for awakening you,” Doremi apologized. “I’ll just be off. Nice to have met you.”

The Viking nodded and let out a breath, still trying to clear the last of the cobwebs, and Doremi began making her way back to the villa.

A while later, she had reached the top of the stairs and was about to continue on to the dining room when she ran into someone, and stopped in her tracks. To her left, a few feet away, was another Scandian who had apparently been coming out of the west wing when he encountered her. Clothed in a variety of fur and leather, he was younger than Thor, being in his twenties or thirties, and not much more than six feet in height, yet he was equally muscular for his size, and more than one scar upon his mustached face attested to his past experience in battle.

“Um...hello,” Doremi said nervously.

The Scandian’s eyebrows narrowed as he squinted at the tiny female.

Doremi thought his look spelled trouble, and nervously she stepped back toward the safety of her room, now all too far away. The warrior, apparently interested in her but still not overtly making an aggressive move, kept in step, keeping his gaze locked upon hers as she looked behind to see if he was following.

Panic now setting in, Doremi instinctively turned and started to run, and just as instinctively the Scandian leapt upon her, and with one move gathered her up in his powerful hands, hefting her across his shoulders. He then retreated back down the eastern hallway with the Bard kicking and screaming at the top her lungs.

His trophy in hand, the Scandian soon made his way to a set of oaken doors, shoved one of them open, and thrust his way into a large common room that had been made into a dormitory. Here, several dozen Scandians lounged about at a great table or upon beds in various states of dress and undress, laughing and talking as their comrade now interrupted them with some new entertainment.

Doremi was screaming for Raven, and her captor let out a hearty laugh as his friends joined in, amused at the sight.

Look what I found!” he exclaimed in the Scandian tongue. “I’m claiming her!

His fellows laughed even harder now as the Viking turned round with the hapless Bard so that everyone could get a good look. Doremi, realizing that screaming was getting her nowhere, turned her head into the Viking and bit his ear as hard as she could.

Roaring with laughter, the warrior let go of her and the Bard tumbled to the floor.

And she bites hard, too!

This brought forth an even louder response of laughter from the group.

One of the other Vikings, however, stepped forward.

Why should you have her, Sten?” he grunted. “I am the greater warrior! I’ve killed twice the men you have!

The Scandian turned toward the challenge, a frown spreading across his face.

Yes, Bjorn,” he spat back to his comrade “--when their backs were to you, and they were fighting others!

The tone of the crowd instantly changed, for such a comment couldn’t go unanswered, and the Scandians quickly began rising from chairs, benches and beds, spreading out in a ring as the second warrior scowled for a moment and then leapt toward Sten in response.

But Sten was ready: As the Scandian flew toward him, Sten deftly pivoted on his feet and leveraged Bjorn into the stone wall. There was a solid THUNK as the warrior’s head impacted the flagstone wall, and just as quickly Sten moved in, making one solid punch into Bjorn’s kidney and then wrapping his solid left arm around his opponent’s head.

Doremi, hoping to take advantage of the situation, was trying to crawl out of the room as the group diverted their attention from her to enjoy the spectacle, but she found her way blocked by a wall of Vikings cheering the pair on. At least, however, the Scandians had momentarily forgotten her, and with luck they might kill each other and the noise attract the attention of someone who could help.

Sten, with his opponent in a solid headlock, was using his right fist to punch Bjorn’s face as quickly and as hard as he could. Bjorn, meanwhile, was desperately trying to break free while simultaneously attempting to punch Sten in the crotch with his left hand. Sten was too wiry, though--despite his bulk--and kept shifting position to deny Bjorn the leverage needed for a good solid punch able to break the hold.

Bjorn managed to shift position enough to maneuver his right arm up Sten’s back to grab onto the locks of his hair, which he gave a good, solid yank to. Mouth open in a grimace of pain, Sten redoubled his efforts at punching Bjorn into submission even as Bjorn was forcing Sten’s head toward him. Then, all at once, Bjorn got Sten’s head close enough for his left hand to reach up and wrap around Sten’s neck--and in one move, he leaned forward, flipping Sten over his shoulder to the ground and breaking the headlock.

Instantly, the roles were reversed as Bjorn dove upon Sten, moving to pin Sten’s arms with his legs as he rained blows down on his opponent’s with both fists.

In a moment it was over. Sten lay unconscious, quivering on the floor.

A tumult went up in the ranks of the Vikings as Bjorn gasped a lungful of air and struggled to his feet. Doremi, terrified and still laying on the floor, now watched as a blood-soaked, pulpy face turned to her, gasping for air.

Come here, girl,” Bjorn grunted. Then she screamed as the Scandian leaned down and grabbed her by the arm.

Let her go.”

The voice from the doorway was Thor’s.

There was no urgency behind it. No insistence. No concern. It was simply a matter-of-fact order given that Thor fully expected to be obeyed without argument.

Bjorn, still holding onto Doremi’s arm, looked over to the doorway as men began moving aside so their leader could enter.

Why? I won her fairly! Sten said I only kill men whose backs are to me!”

He’s right,” Thor replied.

The room exploded into laughter and Bjorn’s face turned even redder than it was from the blood covering it.

But as long as they’re dead--who cares?” Thor added. “Anyway, is this the way you behave when you’re a guest in someone’s lodge--taking one of their women for yourself?

I’m a Scandian,” Bjorn insisted. “This is what Scandians do with Torrencians!

Not while I’m your King,” Thor answered. “And she’s not Torrencian; she’s from Avalon. They were our allies if you remember. She’ll turn you into some sort of foul creature if you don’t let her go. That’s aside from what I do to you. Now let her go.

At Thor’s words about foul creatures, Bjorn let go and jumped back like a snake had slithered out of the bushes in front of him.

I didn’t know she was a Witch Woman!

Now you do.”

Thor stepped forward and carefully helped a trembling Doremi up to her feet.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly to her. “The men meant nothing by it; they were only having some fun. I give you my oath none of them will bother you again. Bjorn will now apologize.”

The giant Viking, standing head and shoulders above most all of his men, then began walking past Bjorn toward the table where he spied several bottles of mead calling out for attention.

Apologize,” he commanded Bjorn as he passed.

Nervously, Bjorn looked back to Doremi. “You would have liked it,” he said in Scandian.

Thor reached the table and grabbed for one of the bottles along with a shank of meat.

“Bjorn says he apologizes for the rude behavior of he and his brother,” the Viking chieftain told her. “He blames it on their poor upbringing.”

Scowling and rubbing her sore arm, Doremi looked over to the huge Viking. “Those two are brothers?!”

Thor turned back. “Of course,” he answered, biting off a mouthful of beef. “Couldn’t you tell they were holding back?”

Doremi shook her head.

mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>Scandians! mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>she thought.

Behind Raven’s villa lay a large tiled courtyard flanked on two sides by the north and south wings of the building, and at its center lay a large pool. The humble Bard, having survived her meeting with Thor and his men and deciding to put the experience behind her, finally made it to the dining room where she admired some of the paintings and decorations Raven had placed there over the years.

No one was present, and she paused to look down to the rear courtyard through a window. It was there that she caught sight of Raven acting very oddly down below.

Standing to the side of the pool, her hair in a pony tail, and dressed in simple black pants with a halter top and no boots, she would stretch forth her gloved hands and move them around in graceful arcs, then suddenly lash forward or else backwards with them, almost like a snake striking at its prey. Next, she would take a step forward and then lean backward and bring her leg around in an arc like a windmill; or else kick her leg out with another snapping motion, reaching so high that Doremi was amazed at her agility. Then she began a series of body twists, pivoting her upper body left, and then right, while snapping her elbows as if driving them into an unseen opponent behind her. Finally, she punched out with a flat fist, with a nimbleness Doremi again found remarkable.

“Morning, Doremi,” she called up without turning.

Doremi was surprised Raven realized she was there since she hadn’t made a sound, nor had Raven ever looked her way.

“Good morning, Raven,” she called down from the open window.

The Bard watched for another moment and then asked, “Raven, what is it that you’re doing? Are you dancing?”


“May I watch?”

“If you want,” Raven called up while continuing the unusual movements.

Doremi left the dining room and found the exit from the main wing to the back courtyard. Out there, Raven by now had raised both her hands over her head and began leaning over backwards--and kept leaning backwards until she actually arched all the way over to touch her palms to the ground. Then she snapped upright and did a split, dropping to the ground.

Doremi walked up grimacing and rubbing her thighs.

“I’d strain myself if I tried that!” she exclaimed.

Raven didn’t answer, but simply chuckled.

“What sort of exercises are those?” the Bard now asked.


“I’ve never seen boxers exercise like that. I admit I don’t know much about boxing, though.”

Raven began her movement again, kicking her legs up one at a time to the level of her head.

“My boxing isn’t like what they do in Torrencia,” she said in between kicks and breaths. “Mine is far more--effective. In Torrencia, they paw at each other like boxer dogs. I call what I do boxing because that’s the closest word for it that you’d know to describe it. It’s actually called kara-te, which means to fight with nothing in your hands. I’m almost the only one in Islay who can do it. Certainly, I’m the only one who’s mastered kara-te.”

“Hmm. I guess those are Elven words?”

Raven remained silent and continued her movements. Now that she was close up to her, Doremi could see that not just her neck, but her arms--and just about every other part of her body--was well developed and muscular. In fact, this woman didn’t look as if she had so little as a pound of body fat on her.

Curiously, though, as developed as her muscles appeared, Raven wasn’t actually muscular. It was more as if her muscles were tight and strong--like the strings of an instrument.

Doremi thought they did detract some from her beauty (for muscles on a woman never really make her look more attractive)--but still, the complete package was truly remarkable.

“I once heard that some of the Elvenking’s guard--the Guard of Brigit--can wrestle with their hands as well as fight with weapons,” Doremi continued. “Is that where kara-te comes from?”

“There are various forms of it,” Raven answered. “I suppose the Brigitillian Guard may have their own style. The style known by my father, who taught it to me, is called nin-po. Very few people know how to do it; it’s a closely guarded secret taught only from father to son or to daughter. Occasionally, one might teach a student--I’ve taught Morgaine much of what I know, for example. But it’s rare to find someone who knows how to do any of it.”

“Must be--I’ve never heard of kara-te! What all can you do with it?”

Raven beckoned, and Doremi walked over to her.

They stood a couple of feet apart.

“Well, for one, I could whip my right foot around and bring it up to the right side of your face, knocking you out or breaking your jaw. In fact, you couldn’t stop me even if you knew I was going to do it,” Raven boasted.

Doremi grimaced again. “Well, I believe you, although it’s hard to im--”

As quickly as that, Raven made a lightning fast movement, arching backwards and snapping her right leg out and up, stopping as it rested against Doremi’s right cheek.

“The exercises keep my muscles limber enough to make the movements I need to make in combat. Now,” she grunted as she froze in position, “when I was twenty, I could hold this position all day if I had to, but now--uh--it hurts, but you at least get the idea.”

She snapped back into a standing position and rubbed her wrists through the ever-present gloves.

“Arthritis,” she spoke. “That bothers me too now. I suppose you can only break so many bones with your hands before they too start to feel it. I hate getting old!”

Doremi laughed. “Yeah, well, there are things we can do at twenty that we can’t do so well when we’re thirty; and things we can’t do at forty that we could do at thirty. Nothing we can do about it, though, right? It’s part of life, getting older.”

Raven gave her a look that Doremi didn’t quite follow. It was a sly sort of an I know something you don’t know smile.

“Beyond kicking the stuffing out of you,” she continued, “I can do all sorts of things. But the bottom line is, kara-te, allows you to use your hands and feet as weapons, and to strike much more quickly than you can with a sword. Of course, this means you’re right up against your opponent, and if your defensive skills aren’t up to par, he may gut you, but kara-te teaches attack, defense, and discipline--not all in that, order, though.”

“That sounds great! Could someone like me learn kara-te?” asked the Bard.

Raven laughed. “Remember I told you I had no time to devote to music?”

Doremi nodded.

“To learn kara-te, you’d need to devote yourself to it as you’ve done to music. I’ve spent my entire life mastering it. You simply don’t have the time for it, just as I don’t for music. But perhaps I can teach you a few tricks here and there when we have some time. It starts with learning good balance.”

“Oh, I’ve got great balance,” Doremi said with a confident smile.

“Do you really? That’s good. But would you like to see what you don’t have, and what your great weakness would be?”

Doremi cocked her head to the side in puzzlement. “Okay.”

Faster than Doremi could blink, Raven’s glove fist shot toward her. Raven hadn’t meant to strike the Bard, and the fist intentionally shot past her face by a good two inches. Nevertheless, Doremi jumped back in what would have been an utterly vain attempt to dodge it.

“That’s the first thing I’d have to work with you on, Doremi,” Raven spoke. “When I attacked you, your instinctive response was to try and duck, which would leave me free to hit you again. Your whole intent was simply not to get hit. If someone tries attacking me with a blow, my instinctive response using kara-te is to block it and attack back in the same move. It’s a question of instinctive response: Yours is to duck, mine is to attack. Try it sometime on me: Just punch at me or make a physical attack when I’m not expecting it. What will happen--unless you’re real lucky--is that I’ll block it and come back with an attack. Now, I’ll be able to stop myself in time from actually striking you, but you’ll get an idea of what I mean. But do not try that with a weapon! Only use your fist. If you do it with a weapon, I’ll unconsciously perceive that as an attempt to kill me, and I’ll probably hurt you before I can consciously reason out what you’re doing. Remember that--do it with a fist but not with any sort of weapon!”

Raven now took her by the hand and led her over to the pool. The long, rectangular pool had a rim of marble about eight inches wide and about six inches tall around it, and the Mistress of Freeport pointed to it.

“You say you have good balance? Okay--I want you walk along the rim of this pool from the bottom to the top. Think you can without losing your balance?”

Doremi squinted with an irritated look on her face. “Of course I can!”

Raven swept her hand toward the pool, inviting her to try.

Doremi easily stepped up onto the marble rim of the pool and effortlessly walked along it for twenty feet or so, then she stepped off, turned back to Raven and held her hands up.

“See? Easy?”

“Think you could do it again?”

“Sure--it’s easy!”

Raven nodded. “Think you could do it one hundred times out of one hundred times without losing your balance?”


Raven beckoned with her finger and Doremi walked back. The Mistress of Freeport then took her by the shoulders and turned her toward a corner of the main wing of the manor. She pointed up to the roof, where Doremi beheld a thick plank had been stretched diagonally between the roof of the main wing of the villa and the north wing. For a distance of about fifteen feet between the two roofs there was only empty space to the ground, fifty feet below the plank.

“We’re going to go up on the roof,” Raven said, “and I want you to cross that board up there just as quickly as you just crossed the rim of the pool.”

Doremi was aghast.

“No way!” she exclaimed.

“Why not?” Raven asked. “It’s even wider than the rim of the pool. You just told me you could cross the rim a hundred out of a hundred times.”

“If I fall, I’ll break my neck!”

Raven smiled. “And that’s your great weakness, Doremi--fear. And being ruled by your emotions. You see, kara-te is here--” Raven pointed to her fist. “And here--” she pointed to her feet. “And here--” she pointed to her head. “It is never here--” she pointed to her heart.

“To master kara-te, you must break free from your feelings and your emotions. You must train yourself to act instinctively without thinking about it. You must conquer your fear and develop self-discipline and logic to the point your fear simply ceases to exist under most circumstances. That’s why I have an advantage over my adversaries. I never let my emotions override my logical assessment of the situation, and I base my actions according to my chances of succeeding in the task at hand.

“You see, both of us can cross the rim of that pool forever without losing our balance. But you’re ruled by your emotions, and when you look at the board up on the roof, your emotions direct your thinking, and instead of considering the overall task and basing your willingness to undergo it solely on your chances of success, you instead allow your emotions to base your willingness to try on the repercussions of failure. Since failure means a broken neck, you hesitate or refuse to undertake a course of action your mind already knows you can accomplish one hundred percent of the time. Not so with me. My willingness is based on how certain I am I can accomplish what I need to do. I absolutely know I can cross that board without losing my balance, hence the penalty for failure is irrelevant because I can absolutely perform the task. Thus, I have no fear of falling. Thus, my emotions do not inhibit my talents and abilities. Thus, I have a tactical advantage over my opponent unless he also thinks like I do. But few do. See?”

Doremi thought for a few moments.

“Wow,” she finally said. “I never met anyone who had a philosophy like that. It’s--interesting.”

Raven smiled again. “And it’s one of the reasons I always win. That board could be six inches above ground or six miles--it make no difference. All that matters is that my chances to cross it are one hundred percent. Come here, and I’ll show you another example.”

Raven led the Bard over to a porch and indicated a rafter above them. “How long could you hang from that beam there?” she asked Doremi.

“Oh, not long,” Doremi responded. “A minute, I suppose.”


Raven jumped up and grabbed the top of the beam with her hands, then she closed her eyes and hung there. For what must have been five minutes Doremi watched as she silently hung from the beam, her eyes closed, with a look of near serenity upon her face, despite the fact the muscles of her arms were as tight as lute strings.

“How long can you hang like that?” Doremi finally asked her.

“As long as I have to,” she whispered back. Then Raven released her grip and dropped back to the ground, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs. “I can hang there five minutes or five days as far as I’m concerned,” she said, wiping the dust from her hands.

“Raven you can’t hang there for five days!” Doremi exclaimed as she followed her back to the courtyard.

Raven chuckled. “As far as my mind is concerned, I can hang however long I need to, and the length of time I must do so is irrelevant. Having overcome the first level of opposition to accomplishing the task, the only other factor is the strength of my body itself. Sooner or later, it would give out, so yes, you’re right--I could not hang there for five days. But I can hang there as long as my body is physically capable of hanging there. The first level of weakness will always come from your thoughts and emotions--you must get those under complete control or they will detract from your maximum capabilities. Once you do overcome them, the only remaining factor is your own body’s physical capabilities. Just to give you an example, you said you could hang there for about a minute, right?”

Doremi nodded.

“Now imagine,” Raven said, “that you were hanging over a pit of snakes. The fear of those snakes would get you to drag that minute out to perhaps a minute and a half--agree?”

“Oh yeah--I’d hang on ‘til my arms gave out!”

“That’s an example of your mind increasing the effectiveness of your actions. By the same token, though, your fear and panic about the snakes would actually cause you to hang on for less time than you theoretically could. Your heart would race, you’d tire yourself out, and you’d drop in half the time you could otherwise hang there if you were like me. You see, when I hang there, I have absolute faith I can hang for as long as I need to, so I refuse to fear; I refuse to doubt; and I relax and clear my mind, allowing my body to maximize its capabilities. So I can hang there--I don’t know...maybe half an hour or more. But neither the amount of time, nor the repercussions of failure, is ever an issue because if it was an issue it would weaken me and decrease my chances of survival. Thus, I deny my emotions and let logic and faith in myself guide me.”

“But what about the down side to this, though?” Doremi asked.

“Down side?”

“Well...people aren’t designed to live without feelings,” the Bard noted. “If you spend your whole life smothering your emotions so they don’t cloud your thinking, what about good emotions like love or mercy?”

“What about them?” Raven asked.

“Won’t you lose them along with the fear? And if you just smother your feelings--don’t some things just simmer inside you and never get dealt with?”

It was at that moment Morgaine hurried out into the courtyard from the back door of the manor.

“Cyl says tomorrow night should be good,” she called out.

“About time,” Raven muttered, looking back at her.

“Assemble the team and have Espy portal them here,” the Mistress of Freeport then shouted. Then she looked over to Doremi.

“Sit down--I need to talk to you.”

Her hostess took a seat on a marble bench to the side of the pool and patted the open portion of the bench to her side. Doremi joined her as Morgaine hastily disappeared back inside.

“I’m sorry, Doremi,” Raven said. “I had hoped you’d have more time to get to know me. More time to come to trust my judgment. But it took a long time for you to get my letter, and things are going to happen quickly now. You’ve seen the Guild. You can understand the magnitude of the work I did to build it into what it is. This won’t sound modest, but can you accept that it would require a person of brilliance to have accomplished all of it?”

Doremi nodded.

“Then I have to ask you to trust that I know what I’m doing. I don’t do anything without having considered every contingency and having planned my strategy to deal with it.”

The look of confusion on Doremi’s face was obvious and Raven took her by the hand.

“The Liche who has what I need is Nostradamus,” the Mistress of Freeport admitted.

The color drained from Doremi’s face, and she pulled her hand away.

“You’re absolutely crazy!” she exclaimed. “You intend to steal from Nostradamus?!

“I intend to kill Nostradamus,” came the soft reply. “Then steal from him.”

Doremi shook her head. “Are you insane, Raven? You can’t kill Nostradamus--he’s already dead for one thing! Have you ever even seen that school he lords over? It’s as big as a city! I lived there for three months--do you have any concept of how huge it is? It takes so long just to walk through the gates to get to the Upper School--called Serpen’s Tower--that they had to make a room for me at the end of the Lower School as close to the Upper complex as they could get, just so I could get to his library in an acceptable length of time to translate his Karnaki papyri every day. It takes a good hour of walking--and I mean fast walking, not strolling--to go from the outside to the Upper School. That School goes on and on forever. It’s got temples, Libraries, armories, laboratories, courts--it just goes on and on and on! He’s got hundreds--maybe thousands--of priests and wizards there! He’s got an army there! He’s got a conclave of ten or twelve Liches in the Upper School who serve him--and if all that isn’t enough, he’s a twentieth-circle wizard, Raven! You’d need an army to take the place down and even then I don’t think you could do it!”

Raven exhaled in frustration. “Doremi,” she said quietly, placing her hand on the Bard’s shoulder, “everyone lives their lives in one of two ways: They either live their lives through faith and optimism, or through fear and pessimism, and the choice they make colors their attitudes, their judgment, and their effectiveness.

“I just showed you that you operate through fear. And by that I don’t mean you’re a coward or that you’re an ineffective person; I mean that your fear breeds a cautious nature in you, and that very nature detracts from the effectiveness you could have if you’d change your way of thinking. I’ll wager, for instance, you take very few chances in your life, and things you don’t understand probably frighten you. Well--I operate through faith: Faith in my skills, my knowledge, and my abilities. I know my strengths and weaknesses; I know what I’m capable of, and I don’t let fear color my analysis of fact. That’s why a lot of people mistake my faith in myself for sheer arrogance. But arrogance it’s not--it’s absolute confidence in myself based on what I know I can do! That’s why I never undertake something I am incapable of doing; and when I do accept a task, I accept it only after I have analyzed it and concluded my skills and abilities will allow me to perform it. From that point, I only view the task from a perspective of absolute assurance I will accomplish it because of the confidence I have in myself and my abilities.

“But when you look at the task I intend to do, you see that task through your fear and caution, and the pessimism they bring. You actually choose to see things from Nostradamus’ perspective--which is exactly what he wants!”

Raven settled back and began to express Doremi’s misgivings about the whole thing perfectly.

“He’s the most powerful wizard in ten thousand years,” she spoke. “He lives above an impregnable fortress, in an unassailable tower guarded by an army of wizards and warriors, and he’s protected by a dozen undead wizards nearly equal in power to himself. He can’t die because he’s already dead. No one can dare attack him at the very heart of his power with any hope of victory.

“And that’s exactly why I’ll win! Because he can’t conceive of anyone attempting what we’ll be doing.”

The Mistress of Freeport turned back to the Bard.

I consider the task based on my confidence in my skills and what I’ve accomplished in the past against other enemies, and when I do that through the optimism of confidence my life has developed in me, instead of an unbeatable foe I see a Liche in his last decades of existence, trapped in a tower he cannot leave, sealed off from his own guards because of the very enchantments his tower is loaded with to prevent his enemies from ingress.”

“Raven,” Doremi broke in, “faith is great, but it’s only as good as the object in which you place it. You sure you’re not letting yourself be a bit overconfident here?”

“Doremi, you show me someone or something that’s more dependable or effective in helping me than this arm of flesh right here,” Raven said as she raised a gloved fist, “and I’ll gladly place my faith in he, she or it. ‘Til then, my faith is in my abilities. I know I can trust them! They have never let me down, and they never will.”

“Okay, fair enough, Raven. But what do you mean by saying Nostradamus is ‘sealed in’ his tower?”

“Well, you do know, I presume, that the entire Upper School is its own separate fortress from the Lower School, and is heavily enchanted to prevent any sort of magical ingress. One can’t activate a teleportal spell to gain entrance to it, as an example.”

Doremi nodded. “Right. Supposedly, it’s impossible to open a portal into either his Tower or the rest of the Upper complex because the walls won’t function for it. I’m not even certain you can portal out of it using even a greater teleportal spell or a word of Power. I’m not a wizard, so I never tested it, but that’s what they say. I think he can portal in and out, though.”

“Not anymore, Doremi,” Raven assured her. “He is so ancient--almost a thousand years old, supposedly--that he can’t leave his tower. That’s the great weakness these Liches have: They have to stay near the source of their power or they’ll die. Throckmorton, who isn’t as old as Nostradamus, can still go anywhere within the confines of his School. Nostradamus, however, is so old that he must stay in or near his central tower. That tower is the focus of the enchantments that flow through the School. If he tries to leave it, his body would turn to dust within minutes. He’s half-skeleton/half-spirit now, did you know that?”

The Bard shrugged. “I’ve heard that, but I was lucky enough never to meet him in person to see for myself. I did see some of the other Liches, though,” she replied with a shudder.

“He’s becoming a shade,” Raven continued. “Over the past fifteen seasons, his body has started to fade. In a few more decades he’ll be finished. As it stands now, the magic in his tower is buying him time. It’s the only thing keeping him from passing into the realm of spirit. He’s trapped there, Doremi. Trapped in a basalt cube of fixed size from which he dare not leave. He’s just like a King on a chessboard hemmed in on three sides by his own pieces, with nowhere to go. Then--in comes the opponent Queen with only a few pawns protecting her and she traps him--Checkmate!

“Now, I know you’ve done a lot of treasure hunting. But your problem is, you’re seeing this from the viewpoint of a treasure hunter: In your head, you’re thinking I plan on sneaking in through the front door, sneaking through an army and hundreds of wizards, and finally sneaking into the Upper School. Well, we’re not going to waste time doing that--we’re going to attack his tower directly and go straight for the head of the snake. I don’t care if he has ten thousand wizards in the Lower School--we’re attacking the Upper School which has only one Liche, and perhaps a few others to deal with!”

“But how can you do that?” Doremi wondered. “How can you bypass the Lower School? You'd need the best mountain climbers in Islay to scale the back of the mountain the School's built into. And they’d spot you for sure if you tried that because they send out patrols every day to make sure no one’s poking around. And if you’re thinking of some kind of flying bubble spell, or some other spell to fly up there, the School has enchantments to keep people from flying over it as well! A bubble would pop, and you'd fall!”

Raven exhaled once again. “You let me worry about how to get up to the tower, Doremi--I have that covered. I have something his enchantments against bubble spells and the like can’t overcome. And again--those very enchantments that protect him are the very enchantments that will keep his own forces from getting to him to save him! The fool has made the place so impregnable against incursion by Throckmorton that his very defenses prevent even his own army from getting to him except by the long, slow walk you spoke of from the Lower School to the Upper School. I’ve thought this out, Doremi--we’ve been two years planning this. He cannot withstand my forces or my plan against him. I have him!”

The look upon her face showed that the Bard was still unconvinced.

“Raven, I grant you you’re a smart woman,” Doremi spoke, “but I think you’re way underestimating how hard it would be to kill him.”

The Mistress of Freeport reached back and undid the string that had tied her hair back.

“If it was just myself and a few henchmen, Doremi, you’d be right. But remember what I said--I’ll have some of the most powerful warriors in Islay with me. I'm not talking some group of treasure hunters; I mean the most powerful champions in Islay!”

“What champions?” the Bard inquired.

“Lord Nightshadow, for one. He’s my cousin. I presume you’ve heard of him?”

Doremi’s mood didn’t brighten.

“I’ve heard of Nightshadow,” she said quietly. “I know he’s the most powerful swordsman in Islay--and that Mind Sapphire of his makes him unstoppable, they say. But he’s also evil.”

“Doremi, he is not evil!” Raven exclaimed. “He has an evil Artifact of Power, yes--but he, himself, is not an evil person; that’s just rumor. But more importantly--just as you’ve said, the Mind Sapphire makes him unstoppable. He can’t be killed, Doremi! Cast a spell at him--the Sapphire neutralizes it. Hit him with a sword--the Sapphire heals him. You tell me--what can Nostradamus do against a being his magic won’t affect and his weapons can’t kill? And he’s just one member of the team!”

Doremi shrugged. “Well...you have a point there, I’ll admit. Who else is going?”

“His friend Thor--a powerful Viking from Scandia.”

“I’ve met Thor,” Doremi noted. “I suppose, when he’s sober, he’s a man to reckon with. I was also ‘introduced’ to his friends this morning. They’re rough and they’re tough, but even between he and Nightshadow...I just can’t see how you can overcome Nostradamus. If it were just Nostradamus and the Conclave against you, maybe you’d have a chance. But the second Nostradamus realizes you’re there, he’ll summon everything he’s got. How will you hold off he and his Conclave along with an army of wizards and warriors coming to reinforce him?!”

“I have more accompanying us than you realize,” Raven added. “In addition to Thor and Nightshadow, I have some associates of mine, and some hired henchmen--powerful Witches and warriors in their own right. And, of course--me. I have plans in place to hold off Nostradamus’ reinforcements. But even at that, I won’t pretend this will be easy. And as good as my team is, we’d be even stronger with you as a part of it.

“Now,” she added, detecting the panic spreading across the face of the Bard, “I wouldn’t plan on you to be fighting. Mostly, I would just need your services as a guide from having been inside that School, and I might need your translation skills. The rest of us will handle the fighting. But yes--obviously it would be the most dangerous quest any of us has ever been on. There’s a good chance people will die. But if you’re up for it--it will be...an epic quest. Even greater than that of the Mandolin.”

Raven grinned at the humble Bard. “Worthy of a song, perhaps,” she added.

“Well...how do you know he even has the puzzle piece you need?” Doremi wondered.

The Mistress of Freeport stiffened.

“Ah...yes. Well...he apparently discovered what I had. How, I don’t know. And he offered--an exorbitant price. I refused, but that clued me in on the fact that he must have had a piece.”

Doremi let out a sarcastic chuckle. “Isn’t that just a little thin to go on, Raven?”

“Frankly, Doremi, even if he doesn’t have the piece I need, if I kill him, that will be enough.”


“He killed my father, Thor’s brother--and Nightshadow’s uncle, we discovered.”

“What do you mean you ‘discovered’ that?” Doremi asked.

Raven looked away toward the rising sun and began to speak.

“About thirty seasons ago,” she began, “my father helped some friends of his who were on a quest in the Land of Shadows for Nostradamus. They were hunting for the Mind Sapphire, but they didn’t know that. Nightshadow--then a teenager like me--tagged along. In a nutshell, Nightshadow and his friend Dorrik--who is now King of Dwarves--found the Mind Sapphire, but didn’t know what it was.

“Nightshadow hid it because he was the one who found it. He had some sort of crush on his cousin, and he wanted to give it to her as a piece of jewelry, so he kept its finding a secret and it wasn’t divided up with the other treasure. They were paid for their trouble by Nostradamus, but a few hours after leaving him the group was attacked by demons or some sort of monsters. Nightshadow and Dorrik, who were gathering wood or something, were the only ones who survived; and my father, Nightshadow’s uncle, Thor’s brother, and Dorrik’s two older brothers were killed and spoiled. Nightshadow sent us word in Freeport of my father’s death--and that started me and my sister on our own career as treasure hunters.”

“But how do you know Nostradamus was responsible for your father’s death?” Doremi asked. “There’s a lot of monsters in Hocwrath--not that murdering his servants is beneath him, I grant you.”

Raven looked to her.

“It was a fluke, actually,” she admitted. “One of my people in Hocwrath approached Throckmorton with an offer of alliance against Nostradamus when I was concentrating only on obtaining the puzzle piece he has. He took his sweet time considering it, but when Cyl--Cyllindrethifl--presented the offer to him to assist us in attacking him, his first response was, ‘So she is finally taking revenge for his slaying her father’. Cyl--she’s an Elf--kept a straight face and merely asked for his answer. He shooed her away and said he’d consider it, but Cyl reported what he had said. It took me by surprise, but I tracked down Nightshadow and we compared notes and agreed it must be true. It made sense: Nostradamus had to be involved because I can kill any ten men in Islay and, compared to my father, I am nothing--absolutely nothing! So only Nostradamus would have had the ability to send something...something of such awesome power it could kill my father and the rest of the Fellowship, powerful as they were. But we'll be ready when we hit him, and history won't repeat itself. Thus, both of us have a score to settle with Nostradamus. So you see--if I don’t get one gold piece off him, so long as I kill him, that’s all that matters. He took my father from me, and I don’t care what the price is--I’ll kill that filthy bag of putrefying bones!”

“Um...isn’t revenge an emotion-based thing, Raven?” Doremi attempted to point out.

“Yes--but it doesn’t affect my logic-based plan for achieving it, Doremi.”

“Well...just the same--you can call me a coward if you want, but I won’t attack Nostradamus in his own lair. I’m sorry. I wish you all the luck in the world, Raven, but I won’t go.”

Raven nodded, clearly disappointed in the Bard’s response.

“Okay--as I said, your talents will be needed more after he’s dead and I have what I need. Can I at least count on your advice and opinions while we prep?”

Doremi shrugged. “Sure--I’ll help any way I can, short of going along.”

Raven rose to her feet. “I need to change. Meet me at the bottom of my tower in an hour or so; that’s where our council will take place. There’s probably time for you to grab some breakfast at the Inn. But don’t discuss this with anyone in the meantime.”

With that, she left the Bard and quickly made her way into the villa as Doremi watched her go.

It was actually closer to two hours before the meeting started. In that time, Doremi had indeed sampled some starfish-on-toast at the Inn before returning to the tower’s ground floor, where she discovered that Raven’s servants had converted the chamber into a meeting-place, arranging couches, tables and chairs for a large gathering of guests.

The humble Bard wondered what the day would hold, and she didn’t have long to wait, for soon people began arriving from all different directions.

Those summoned began appearing from everywhere: Stepping out of teleportals, materializing from words of Power, or walking downstairs after sneaking through the kitchen portal. At one point, even a small blaze in the fireplace roared into a pillar of flame as several women in hooded robes stepped out into the chamber.

mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>Druids, Doremi realized. Powerful ones, too--using the plane of fire to travel here.

The chamber's opulent dining table, an imposing creation of carved mahogany, had been laid out with place cards indicating where a select group of people should be seated. Doremi found her own name near the foot of the table, to the right and down from where Raven would be.

Something--she couldn’t tell what--was hidden by two linen covers running down the center of the table.

The rotunda was quickly showing its usefulness as a meeting place, for in less than a quarter-hour nearly a hundred people were present for the council they’d been summoned to. There were persons from every corner of Islay: Humans. A knot of powerful looking Dwarves decked head to toe in magnificent suits of armor. Scandians--including Sten and Bjorn who were apparently healed of their wounds--clothed in everything from hides and furs, to suits of chain and plate armour. Torrencians. Arwinians. Krellans, and others.

Just as Raven had told her, the entire chamber was hosting warriors and wizards who at least looked every bit the masters of their respective professions.

The sheer scope of the meeting began giving her pause to wonder if she were underestimating Raven as much as Raven was underestimating Nostradamus, for this was no simple gathering of treasure hunters joined to plot strategy for infiltrating some monster-ridden fortress--this was a war council of a small army of specialists come together with one purpose in mind: to destroy the most powerful wizard since the First Age.

It was now that the humble Bard finally understood this was history in the making, for before her eyes was unfolding a plot that might possibly turn out to be a pivotal event in the history of Islay.

Truth be known, she should have been honored to be here, for any Bard would have given their eyeteeth for the chance to chronicle something of such importance. Still in all, Doremi couldn’t see how this escapade had any chance of actual success. The scope of defeating the most powerful being in Islay, in his own tower, surrounded by thousands of servants, seemed insurmountable. No matter how strong this group seemed to be, she wondered how many of those here now would be dead by tomorrow.

Most, if not all of them, she concluded.

It was on that note that her thoughts were broken by a voice at her side.

“Good morrow, Lady Doremi.”

She looked over and then down to observe that Desmore had joined her.

“Hi, Desmore!” she exclaimed. “Are you a part of this thing against Nostradamus?”

“Oh, goodness me, no,” spoke the Wighead, nervously wringing his hands as he looked up at her. “I am simply here to help with any information I can provide.”

Doremi smiled back down at him. “That’s good--I’d hate to see you risk your life on something like this.”

The tiny man nodded. “Schools of Sorcery are no place for a Wighead, though I would love to pick through their Libraries!”

The last of the crowd were now making their way into the chamber for Morgaine, with Venivica and Espidreen in tow, had entered.

The trio found their own places at the table across from Doremi, and taking this as a cue, the remainder of those with reserved spots now moved away from any conversations they were in with others to join them, settling into the comfort of the their reserved armchairs. This included Thor, who seated himself two seats down from the Bard. However hungover he’d been earlier, he seemed fully recovered.

Finally, Raven herself, dressed in her usual outfit, entered into the chamber from the stairway--and He was with her.

Doremi knew who he was.

Everyone in Islay knew who he was.

And, as he paused near the foot of the table with Raven, most of the conversation halted or else fell into hushed tones as dozens of eyes fixed themselves upon him as his own glowing red eyes coldly returned their gaze.

“Is that who I think it is?” Doremi heard someone whisper.

“Can’t be,” someone else muttered back.

“No, it’s him,” a third person said. “I’ve seen him before.”

This, then--was Nightshadow.

She’d never met him, but Doremi would have recognized him anywhere, for that which made him famous--or infamous, depending on one’s view--hung from a golden chain upon his brown leather tunic.

It was a pendant--a Talisman, really. About the size of a man’s fist, it bore the malevolent form of a coiled cobra of gold, painted green and white, with two sparkling ruby eyes beneath which a huge star sapphire was inset upon the serpent’s hood. Small ancient runes of Power covered the surface of the ornament, imbuing it with enchantments that made even the mightiest items pale in comparison.

This horrid Talisman, which had taken in the very essence and power of evil and given it a visible shape, was called the Mind Sapphire. Crafted in the First Age by Serpen, the Second Lord of the Triad, it had been lost with the Triad’s demise for ten thousand years, and might have stayed lost for another ten thousand but for the fact that Nightshadow had found it.

The powers it had bestowed to him were legend throughout Islay. It was said that he could not be defeated in battle, for the Talisman healed him the moment he suffered a blow. Nor could spellcraft affect its owner, for beyond its healing abilities the Mind Sapphire supposedly neutralized the power of magic itself if it was used against the one wearing it.

Neither of these powers by themselves was intrinsically evil--it was the means by which the Talisman accomplished these abilities that left many feeling fear and revulsion, for the Mind Sapphire did it by absorbing the life energy of those slain by the possessor into it. Some speculated that their very souls powered it, and that those souls were forever denied rest as their essence became absorbed into the artifact to strengthen its bearer.

That the bearer himself paid a price of his own was taken for granted. It was not the way of evil to give without exacting something in return, but the price the bearer might have paid for its power was a subject of debate. At least a part of that price had something to do with his head, for if Raven’s gloves were a trademark of hers, so Nightshadow’s mask was his. He had never been seen in public without the white, formless mask of linen that shielded his face from the view of others.

Only two glowing red orbs of light peering through the mask’s eye slits, not unlike the dead eyes of Liches, may have given some hint as to what lay beneath. Certainly, no one Doremi had ever heard of had been so bold as to ask the Rogue to reveal that which lay hidden.

She sensed it was something horrible.

Beneath Nightshadow’s leather breastplate a red silk sash was tied across his waist, and tucked into it on both sides were two ornate scimitars of Elven silver. These weapons had been fashioned by Elves of the First Age, and not even the heaviest plate armour could withstand them in battle. This combination of both the Mind Sapphire and his two scimitars thus made Nightshadow the most formidable warrior Islay had ever known. And, Doremi had to admit, even Nostradamus could well be stymied by a being this powerful if they did come face to face. Perhaps--just perhaps--Raven could indeed pull this off if everything went right.

The Rogue’s shirt and pants were both black, perhaps in keeping with his personality. His boots were of supple brown leather, and he completed his attire by a hooded silk cape and leather gloves of dark blue, much like Raven’s. All in all, his appearance looked precisely as Doremi had imagined. But what didn’t look as she had expected was Nightshadow himself.

She had expected a man larger than life: A mighty man--tall, lithe, rippling with muscles, possessing a symmetrical physique that bespoke intimidation and confidence. A man who, even without the Mind Sapphire, would command respect from his stature alone.

But he was none of those things.

He was, in fact, the opposite of all she had expected: Nightshadow wasn’t tall, but only average in height. No great muscles were ready to burst through his shirt, for his physique was entirely unimpressive. Nor did a lean figure of a man with a bearing of power and nobility stand before her. In fact, one might almost say he was chubby and looked every inch in form like a middle-aged shopkeeper. And, as Doremi would later find after she heard him speak, not even his voice matched the thunderous baritone, hinting of his power, that she had expected. In fact, he had a curiously dry--albeit pleasant--soft-spoken voice that was more soothing than intimidating, and he even had a slight lisp.

The man didn’t even bear a confident stride when he walked, but moved slowly, with a slight limp, favoring his left leg.

So this was indeed Nightshadow, but not the Nightshadow she would have expected.

Raven reached up and placed her right hand upon Nightshadow’s back as she leaned over to him and whispered, gesturing with her left hand toward the table. He nodded in response and then moved down the right side of the table to take a seat next to Thor, who greeted him by patting him on the shoulder as he sat down.

Doremi realized she’d be sitting next to him, and nervously slipped into her own seat to his left while trying to avoid making eye contact, though the masked face did not even glance her way.

Stormie, following behind the pair, had apparently been invited to the meeting as well, and Raven indicated for her to sit down on the floor behind the chair she would occupy. The child, carrying a few leaves of paper and a piece of charcoal, obediently did as she was told and Raven now stood at the foot of the table, clasping her hands behind her back as she looked over the crowd.

“Thank you all for coming,” the Mistress of Freeport spoke, the acoustics of the chamber easily carrying her voice to all those present. “My apologies for the hasty manner in which I had to call our meeting to order, but--as many of you knew--things would come together quickly, and now our time is at hand. The Operation is now underway, and this meeting is the first part of it.

“First, I would like to acknowledge the presence of Duchess Lydia Pendragon of the Sisters of the Moon,” Raven said, gesturing toward the four hooded Druids Doremi had seen emerge from the fireplace.

One of them, a stunningly beautiful blonde woman, whose curled tresses of gold cascaded past the hood of her sapphire blue cloak to rest upon her pink silk toga, nodded back. She was one of the most beautiful women Doremi had ever laid eyes on, and her power was obviously considerable, yet she looked no more than thirty. The Bard had heard tales, however, that the most powerful Druids achieved the ability to retain a youthful appearance despite their true age. This woman was probably far older, and far more powerful, than she seemed.

“Lydia,” Raven continued, “has been kind enough to loan us some of her people. Additionally, the Sisterhood will be moving down into Freeport to assist our local Praefect of Police with security while the Operation is underway and my forces are out of the city.

“Now our meeting will primarily be conducted by Lady Espidreen of Disdoma,” Raven continued, nodding to the Witch. “But first, I want to make a few comments. Some of you know, and have known, for quite some time what the scope of this Operation is; a few of you have no idea. Some of you have detailed knowledge of what the various groups here will be doing; others of you have not been told. The reason for this is secrecy. The Operation we will be undertaking depends entirely on secrecy. All of you have been told what you needed to know up to this point, and nothing more. Hopefully, your remaining questions will be answered before this meeting concludes. Even so, in keeping with the need for secrecy, you will be told no more, and no less, than that which is necessary for you to efficiently fulfill your role in this mission in such a way that your personal and Team effectiveness is maximized, along with your chances of survival.

“You will note that I just used the word Team. That is because our Operation is divided into two teams: the first is what I call the Assault team. That team includes some of those seated here at this table. It is the Assault team that will bear the brunt of the danger.

“The other team is what I call the Support team. The Support team is subdivided into a number of smaller units, each with a particular task assigned to it that will help support the main Assault team in its quest. Those in the Support team include my people, Lydia’s people, our Scandian friends over there in the corner, and a few others who are not present. At the conclusion of this general council, Morgaine and Venivica will brief the various Support team leaders on any specific information regarding their participation on this Operation. I must stress that none of you is to talk outside of this council with the members of any other team regarding their function. You are to worry only about yourself and your own team. Do not concern yourself with what the person across the room may be doing.

“Over the course of this meeting, feel free to ask questions or make comments if you feel they are appropriate. Thor’s lieutenant, Rolf, will be translating for the Scandians, as some of them do not speak Torrencian well, so please try not to speak quickly; take your time.

Raven now took in a breath. “Well...I think it’s time we show those who don’t know, precisely what we shall be doing. Espy--if you would do the honors....”

Espidreen nodded to Raven and stood up from her seat as she reached out to grab hold of one of the linen covers upon the table. With a quick tug, the Witch pulled it off to reveal a model crafted with great detail that displayed a conglomeration of structures built into the side of a mountain.

Much of the complex was situated upon a huge shelf that had been cut directly into the mountain; other parts jutted or grew out like great leprous tumors in the sides of the peak.

Above the larger complex was a smaller shelf cut back to the very edge of the mountain where the last series of buildings were situated--a massive fortress ringing, on three sides, a final smaller complex from which sprouted a dark, featureless, cube-like tower that rose to become the highest point of the compound.

Eerie and foreboding, the whole massive School lay in miniature form beneath the tarp: Towers soaring above the base they were anchored to, parapets running along curtain walls that extended for thousands of feet; courtyards long as city blocks; temples, large and small, to a hundred-and-one gods of Darkness; Libraries known to hold the sum total of Humankind’s knowledge of Sorcery--all of it was shown in remarkable detail.

Doremi recognized it, of course: It was a model of the First School of Sorcery.

A few murmurs went up in the room and instantly Doremi realized, by their reaction, who was taken by surprise. Curiously, it was three of the warriors seated at the table who made up part of Raven’s Assault team. Most everyone else, she could tell, already knew.

“Behold the First School of Sorcery,” Espidreen announced. “We are going to destroy Nostradamus and loot his treasury.”

The Witch then slipped back into her seat and waited as Raven now spoke.

“For any of you who may have been unaware of our target, if you now have any second thoughts about participating, speak up now and you may withdraw. But before you do, be assured that the planning of this Operation has been undertaken with unparalleled care. This will be no chaotic incursion into an armed fortress relying solely on brute force--we will achieve victory through planning, surprise, tactics, and superior power directed with pinpoint accuracy against our enemy’s greatest vulnerabilities.”

She waited for a moment, and when no one voiced any objections--though some of them had to be mulling over their options--she continued.

“All right, I think that about covers it.”

“Raven,” Venivica broke in, “do you think this is the right place for a child?” the Witch spoke, nodding in Stormie’s direction.

The Mistress of Freeport turned to glare at the Witch.

“Since I invited her, apparently I do,” she answered, the irritation clear in her voice.

Venivica quickly fell silent, and Raven relaxed somewhat.

“I want her to be able to say she was here when this meeting, which will change the course of history, took place,” Raven explained. “She’ll outlive most of the people in this room, and I mean for her to be able to brag about this day even though she won’t remember much of it. Anyway--before I turn the council over to Espidreen, I will ask that the members of the Assault team introduce themselves and say a word or two about their particular skills. Of course, you all know Morgaine, Espidreen, Venivica and Desmore, our Lord Mayor. Excepting Espidreen, they aren’t a part of the Assault team itself. So, Mac Tavish, why don’t you start?”

Raven then eased into her seat and opened up a journal similar to ones that each of those at the table had been provided with, along with pen and ink, and a goblet of water.

The man Raven indicated looked ‘round, then pushed back the chair and stood to his feet. He was a Torrencian Highlander as noted by a green kilt that wrapped around his waist and ran up across his yellow linen shirt where it was pinned at the left shoulder. He was middle-aged--in his late forties, Doremi guessed--and he had a handsome crop of wavy reddish-orange hair sporting two braids down the sides of his head, along with  a long mustache of the same red hue.

The Highlander cleared his throat, and spoke.

“I‘m Malcolm Mac Tavish o’ Clan Tavish,” he said in a Highland accent. “I’m one o’ Guildmasterrs herre at the Adventurrerrs’ Guild. M’ specialty’s claymorre, dirrk, grreat sworrd, ‘n two-hand axe. I hate Liches about as much as I hate the Counts--and the Knights who fight forr ‘em.”

The last comment, Doremi felt, was not-so-subtly directed to a Knight across the table from him.

Mac Tavish then sat down and the man to his left sat up in his chair though he did not rise.

“Romulus Portius Arwinius, head of Freeport’s School of Gladiators,” he announced in a voice softer than Doremi would have thought for a man of his stature and bulk. “I’m expert with gladius, net and trident--as you might expect.”

His sullen face then turned toward the other end of the table.

“I also see why you didn’t tell us beforehand what we were getting involved with, Raven. The last thing you wanted was for us to think about it, I take it?”

Slowly, with some irritation, Raven directed her gaze to the Gladiator. “No one's forcing you to go, Romulus,” she pointed out.

Doremi had never seen a Gladiator before, but Romulus was impressive. His bronze skin revealed an Arwinian ancestry and gave him an appearance as if he was a living statue of bronze plucked from Krella and deposited here in Raven's tower. The powerful muscles visible through his open leather vest also reminded me of plump green beans.

But as impressive as his physique might have been, just as noteworthy was his hair, which was a series of handsome black braids hanging down past his shoulders like the mane of a noble lion. Last of all, the Gladiator’s face had thick lips sprouting from a light growth of beard that was just enough to shadow his face and draw attention to his soft, doe-like eyes.

Just next to Romulus, at the head of the table, sat a character much different from the rest. Here was no muscular warrior, but rather a thin, wiry fellow whose skills weren’t likely based on his prowess with a sword. He hadn’t shaved in probably close to a week so his reddish brown goatee had co-mingled with the scraggly growth of his beard, giving him an unkempt appearance. He was dressed in a baggy red and white shirt with overly puffy sleeves inside of which one could easily conceal things, and the pants that clung to his body as tightly as a set of stockings were of a black and white harlequin pattern like a jester’s outfit. He had an impish grin, though, and Doremi suspected she would probably like him although she would do well to keep a sharp eye on her purse.

“Me name be Fosmo Figgins,” he spoke with a Torrencian street accent. “If ye’d be wantin’ someone wots got the knack t’ drop a shiv, make a dip, pass the queer, pick a lock, or ear wig, it’d be me, eh!”

“Fosmo,” Raven spoke as she began jotting down some notes.


“You know better than to speak that back-alley Torrrencian gutter slang in my presence. Speak normally, as I know you can.”

“Ah, but Raven,” he whined, instantly changing his manner of speech into something more normal, “--it’s more fun that way. No one knows what me be saying.”

“That’s one of many reasons why I want you talking like a normal person, you twit,” came her answer to the Cutpurse. Raven then shifted the quill into her left hand--something Doremi found impressive--and continued writing.

Fosmo shrugged and settled back into his chair.

“For those of you who don’t know, Fosmo heads the Cutpurse Guild in Torrence,” the Mistress of Freeport announced. “He’s the best pickpocket, trap-finder and lock-pick in all Torrencia.”

“In all Islay,” Fosmo corrected.

“Excuse me--in all Islay,” Raven said, looking up from her journal. “Fosmo and I have actually known each other for more years than I can count,” she added. “He even knew me before I gained control of Freeport, though he’d left for Torrencia before everything came to a head. In later years, imagine my surprise when I found him running one of the Cutpurse Guilds of Torrence. Well, today he heads the one united Guild of Burglars, Cutpurses, Assassins and Urchins in Torrence.”

“And heads it quite efficiently,” Fosmo boasted.

Raven smiled and nodded. “Not so much as a piece of fruit gets lifted from a market stand without Fosmo knowing about it. In fact, for those unaware, Fosmo is the one who stole King Lawrence’s sceptre several springs ago. There's a price on his head so high I've thought of turning him in myself,” she joked while reaching for her water goblet.

Doremi leaned forward and looked down to the end of the table. “I heard about that!” she exclaimed. “That was you?!”

A big, toothy grin spread across Fosmo’s face.

Amusing as his feat might have been to others, the man sitting to Fosmo’s left looked over to the Burglar with a scowl.

“Filching the sceptre of thine own king--canst there be an act more knavely?!”

The man was obviously a Knight as could be deduced from the white surcoat emblazoned with the golden crest of a hawk covering the suit of chainmail he wore. Unlike most of the others, he was no example of youthful, muscular bravura, but the barrel-chested Knight was tall--over six feet--and, despite being a bit paunchy, was solidly built. His nose, Doremi could see, was crooked (apparently it had been broken a time or two in the past), and his short-cropped gray hair and the wrinkles of his face showed he was the oldest man in the room, being sixty seasons in age if not more. But Doremi was sure all that belied his undoubted puissance as a warrior.

Fosmo, meanwhile, returned the Knight’s gaze. “Me gave it back!”

“Why?” Mac Tavish couldn’t help asking.

“He just wanted to show off that he could do it,” Raven answered from the end of the table. “Right, Fosmo?”

Fosmo looked back, still grinning. “Me wasn’t showing off; me did it only to test me mettle and keep me skills sharp.”

“What was her name, Fosmo?” Raven asked, looking back to her journal.

That brought a few chuckles from the table.

“Oh, by the way,” Raven continued, “--the years have been good to you, Fosmo. You and I are the only ones here who don’t look like they’ve aged a day in the past twenty seasons,” she said teasingly. “My secret’s clean living--what’s yours?”

“Not clean living, that’s for sure,” Venivica broke in.

Fosmo looked down to Venivica with a grimacy smile and sarcastically imitated her laughter.

“Actually it’s courtesy of an elixir of youth me borrowed from a wizard’s treasury,” he spoke to Raven.

At hearing that, the Mistress of Freeport looked up, her eyebrows suddenly narrowing.

“Knowing I would pay any amount for it, you didn’t even offer it to me?!” she demanded. “You just downed it?!”

Fosmo shrugged. “Raven--there’s some stuff that gold just don’t buy,” he answered.

The Mistress of Freeport let out a breath and looked back to her journal.

“I suppose,” she muttered. “Giles--your turn.”

The Knight nodded to Raven. “I be Sir Giles Longworth of Dithersdale,” he spoke to all in a deep baritone voice. “Formerly in service to His Majesty as head of Lady Raven’s Life Guard, I now be in her employ as her Protector. On my honor, my sword shalt serve this Fellowship unswervingly.”

“Speaking of that sword, Giles,” Raven interjected, “would you be so kind as to allow us a look at it?”

The Knight nodded and rose from the chair, sliding his blade from its sheath and laying it upon the table. It was a fine bastard sword whose great silver blade was inlaid with delicate, intertwined engravings of knot work and flowers that extended back to an outstretched brass guard curving back in two great spiral quillons to a leather-wrapped grip ending in a diamond-studded golden pommel shaped like a crown.

“This sword,” Raven spoke, “is unique in Islay. It’s a Holy Sword blessed by the goddess Priscilla with a special potency against evil and undead. I dare say it’s the most highly enchanted blade in all of Islay--in so far as the ease it can slay evil. I’ve seen it bring down demons with one hit.”

“How is it against Liches?” the Gladiator inquired, looking down at the glimmering blade set before him.

“It’s nay been used against a Liche afore,” answered Sir Giles. “But an oath I take that burn a Liche it shall, with flames he’ll not soon quench.”

“How is it against burglars, Giles?” Venivica now asked, looking Fosmo's way.

The Cutpurse scowled back.

“Thank you, Giles,” Raven spoke.

“How came y’ by such a blade, eh?” the Highlander couldn’t resist asking.

“‘Twas given me by Sir Reginold afore his death.,” replied the Knight as he returned the sword to its sheath. “His squire wast I in me youth.”

“Sir Reginold was a famous Knight,” Raven explained.

“And he has a wonderful legend,” Doremi spoke up. “He was the one who quested to find a Flower of Chivalry to restore his lost honor.”

“We can tell that story another time,” Raven broke in. “Anyway, wrapping up our introductions--next to Giles is Thor, the main chieftain of Scandia, whose men are here with us. My cousin Nightshadow, of course, needs no introduction. Finally, next to him, we have Lady Doremi Bender, a Master Bard from Avalon. Doremi will undoubtedly provide us with some useful information as she was formerly a Librarian at the First School.”

Doremi could tell from the looks and murmurs of the spell-casters that many in the room were impressed--and no wonder, for to be a Librarian was an impressive thing to be. However, she didn't really consider herself a true Librarian, on par with the great sages of Hocwrath who were masters of both Sorcery and knowledge of the Arcane.

But she did have her specialties.

“All, right,” Raven continued. “Desmore, let’s begin with you.”

The Wighead looked over to her.

“As our resident Librarian here in Freeport, please give us a brief historical overview of the First School.”

The tiny man nodded, cleared his throat, paused, then squirmed off his chair, turned round, and climbed up to stand upon it so he could project his voice to the assembly.

“This is what we know about the First School,” he began. “Both it and the Second School were built approximately ten thousand years ago during the early years of the Triad. Most hold that the First School was built by Serpen for his use, whilst the Second School was built for Serpen’s lieutenant Goth, dubbed the father of Necromancy. From what I have surmised in my studies of the history of Islay, however, it is my belief that Gorus, despite being the Arkon of Andor, built, or was involved with the building, of both Schools. Whether true or not, what we today call the First School wound up being used by Serpen, and the Second School became Goth’s headquarters.

“Now the fate of Goth, as well as Serpen, is unknown as some of you are aware. Most believe the two fell with Gorus during the surprise attack launched against a fortress of his on some island west of Islay by the Elves and Dwarves, during which the Elves lost all of their wizards. My own supposition is that there was a second, unrecorded attack made against a fortress Serpen supposedly had deep in the Land of Shadows, which was called the Fortress Between Two Worlds. I believe it possible he and Goth were defeated there, for no record of them being seen during the last days of the assault on Talon is recorded.”

At hearing this, Nightshadow suddenly sat up in his seat.

“Raven, I think I’ve seen this fortress he speaks of!” he exclaimed.

“Goodness--where?” queried the Wighead.

“Within an ancient complex of caves deep within the Land of Shadows,” he answered, looking up and away as if remembering the long distant past. “It was on the quest during which I discovered the Mind Sapphire. Dorrik and I had become separated from the others, and we were trying to make our way out. In one of the caverns we came across what looked like a huge fortress--but it looked ghostly, for we could see right through it. There was no way to get to it because it wasn’t solid. I realize now it must have been in the Ethers, and one could only reach it by shifting to the Ethers as the Mind Sapphire permits me to do. If you were to give it a name, Fortress Between Two Worlds is exactly what you’d call it! Nostradamus was the one who sent us there--he must have known about its location.”

“Could you find it again?” Raven asked.

“I doubt it,” Nightshadow answered. “I wouldn’t want to anyway.”

With that, he grew silent and settled back into his chair.

“Well, Lord Nightshadow,” Desmore spoke, “I dare say you may have come closer than anyone to discovering Serpen’s fate. You may even have hit upon the final resting-place of Emperor Baltarus since his own fate is equally unknown. About all we do know for sure is that Baltarus disappeared in the last days of the siege on Talon, just like Serpen and Goth.”

Nightshadow fidgeted as he looked nervously to the Wighead. “Actually, his name was Livius...Krellus...Andronicus...Baltarus,” he spoke quietly, as if he was repeating something in the manner he had once been told it. “The custom of the Krellans was to refer to a man by his father’s name, so Baltarus was actually the father of the man we’ve come to know as Baltarus. His real name was Livius.”

Raven, surprised, glanced over to her cousin.

“I didn’t know you were a student of Krellan history,” she spoke.

Nightshadow shrugged. “I always thought the Krellans were interesting, and one of my dreams as a boy was to see Gladiators fight in the Ludus. When I was on the expedition into the Land of Shadows to find the Mind Sapphire, there was a former Centurion, and another man with us, who knew a lot about Krella. I learned that from them. You know, there’s even a small temple to Baltarus in Draconium. I saw it once; they have chains across its doors.”

“That’s true,” Raven confirmed with a nod. “There is one just below the temple of Janus, along the Argileto. It’s been closed since the First Age, but they have a legend that Baltarus actually was taken up to heaven by Mars before the Triad’s fall, and that Mars will someday send him back to revive the Empire. The Senators, of course, loathe that idea, but the soldiers believe it. Supposedly, only Baltarus can undo the chains securing the doors. That’s the legend, anyway.”

“Well,” the Wighead continued after no one else spoke, “returning to the history of the Schools, they were apparently abandoned for quite some time after the Triad’s fall and the sack of the West by the ancient Torrencians.”

At hearing that, Thor’s brow furrowed as a scowl spread across his face.

“I mean, rather, uh, during the sack of the West by the ancient Torrencians and those who today are called Scandians,” the Wighead corrected himself.

The scowl melted away and Thor nodded his approval to Desmore.

“Some centuries after the Triad’s fall,” Desmore continued, “what was left of the wizards of Hocwrath moved into the two Schools and began to rebuild the science and study of Magic. At first, the two Schools functioned amicably as a united force in Hocwrath, but as time passed they became antagonistic towards one another. Eventually, they became thorns in each other’s sides, and today they’re at each other’s throats, but neither School has ever shown itself to be powerful enough to eliminate the other.”

“What about the Third School?” Raven broke in, looking up from her journal. “Does it date from the First Age as well?”

Desmore shook his head. “It was built some two thousand years into the Second Age by wizards from both Schools seeking to bring harmony back to Serpenalik. By the introduction of a third School, it was thought that a neutral force in the city could settle issues between the other Schools and move Hocwrath away from the constant threat of civil war between the two great Schools. The idea hasn’t always worked, however. The predominant pattern has been that Lord of the First School exercises slightly more power than the Lord of the Second School. And so, traditionally, the Lord of the First School is thus viewed as the overall head of Hocwrath itself while the Lord of the Second School considers himself the titular head of the city of Serpenalik. Even so, both are forced to work jointly to rule over the country. One Lord doesn't do anything without securing the tacit approval of the other. The Third School really has no true voting power or influence--everything important is decided between the First and Second Schools, and the two Schools use their power to keep the other cities of Hocwrath in line.”

Romulus had been intently studying the model on the table, and now he spoke up.

“Exactly how large a force do they have inside those Schools?” he queried.

The reply came from Espidreen.

“Approximately two thousand warriors and an equal number of wizards and Priests,” she answered matter-of-factly.

From the looks some at the table were giving each other, it was clear the knowledge of what they were facing did not sit well with everyone.

Stormie, meanwhile, had been quietly drawing on her paper, but as the meeting dragged on she began humming a song, and eventually started singing to herself. Without turning, Raven reached back and tapped on the side of her chair.

The singing stopped.

“What do we know about Nostradamus’ history, Desmore?” Morgaine now asked, leaning back in her seat and kicking her legs out under the table. “Where’d he come from?”

The Wighead turned to her and answered, “Nostradamus came to power some seven hundred years ago when he assassinated his predecessor, Akiba. By my reckoning, he is something like the one hundred and thirtieth or fortieth Lord the First School has had.”

“And Throckmorton?” asked Raven.

“Throckmorton assumed control of the Second School three hundred years later when his predecessor, Disakomon, was slain by a demon he’d conjured. In the four hundred years since then, both Schoolmasters have relentlessly sought the means to outwit and destroy each other, yet they work together remarkably well to keep the rest of the country under their collective thumb.

“I think that is the bulk of useful information I can provide, Lady Raven,” the Wighead concluded as he maneuvered back into his chair.

“Seven hundred years...four hundred years,” Doremi was whispering in awe. “Imagine wizards that ancient, spending century after century studying magic--and here we are...only thirty, forty, fifty years old.”

“Espidreen,” Raven spoke, taking no notice of the Bard’s comments, “your turn.”

The Witch nodded and rose to her feet, stepping to the side of the table and clasping her hands in front of her as she addressed the chamber.

“There is little I can add to what Desmore said regarding the history of the Schools. However, I would make the point that both Schools have different specialties. The First School has always specialized in the study of Sorcery, whereas the Second School is more Priestly. Both Schools, however, possess Masters and students in both Sorcerous and Priestly magic. The two Liches themselves are of comparable power, both being twentieth-circle Necromancer-Sorcerers.”

“Speaking of that, Espy,” Raven spoke up, “--is there anything unique about either twentieth-circle Sorcerers or Necromancers that we should know about? Any unique skills or abilities we need to be aware of?”

The Witch pondered the question for a moment.

“It goes without saying that mastery of two challenging fields of Sorcery conveys an enormous amount of power to Nostradamus,” Espidreen finally answered grudgingly. “As a Necromancer of that circle, he can control nearly any sort of undead--probably even other Liches of lesser level. He can summon and control major demons if he has enough time. He has the advantage of being able to cast most any known spell but for those employed by we and the Druids--and additionally, he can cast twice the total number of spells that a normal twentieth-circle could. This gives him a wide range of versatility. Other than that, one very useful ability he has as a Sorcerer is the ability to employ scrolls of spells usable by other Magicians--including we Witches!”

“So far as his casting ability goes, I don’t care if he can cast a thousand spells,” Raven remarked, taking a sip of water, “--he can still only cast one at a time, and then only if he hasn’t got a sword in his face.”

“Well...we hope so,” Espidreen said with a shrug.

Raven clearly didn’t like the comment and gave Espidreen a stare.

“I say something you disagree with?”

“I don’t know this for certain, Raven--but I’ve heard rumors that Sorcerers who achieve the twentieth circle of skill can cast two spells at a time.”

Raven then looked over to Duchess Lydia for her opinion, but the Druid shrugged and shook her head, indicating she didn’t know whether or not that was true.

Raven’s gaze returned to the Witch. “How sure are you about that, Espy?”

“I’ve never known a twentieth-circle Sorcerer to ask, Raven; it’s just something I’ve heard. But even if it’s true, my supposition would be he can only cast two lower rank spells at a time. Two energy bolts, for instance.”

“Two energy bolts from a wizard that strong could kill most men,” Romulus observed.

“As I said, Romulus,” Raven spoke as her brow furrowed, “if he’s got a sword in his face, he doesn’t cast. You can’t even get off a word of Power without at least a brief moment’s uninterrupted concentration. So it makes no difference how many spells he has or can cast at a time--the second we get close, he’s finished. That does bring up something, however.”

Raven now raised her voice so that everyone in the chamber heard her clearly.

“I want the Scandians and Dwarves to listen carefully to what I’m about to say! It is of the utmost importance that the Witch who leads your Team is kept out of battle. She must be protected at all costs, because if she dies--you stay in that School! Your Witch is your only means of escape, and you are to make sure nothing gets close enough to her to attack. Keep your Witch alive!

Raven now looked over to the five Dwarves. “Stahlhelm, Red Thumb and Two-Axe, I want you three protecting Varinia.”

The Mistress of Freeport then pivoted toward Thor. “Thor, put two or three of your best on Ronessa.”

Thor nodded and leaned back to address his men. “Rolf,” he spoke.

At his call, the bare-chested Viking ceased translating, and looked over to his chieftain.

“You, Sten and Lontz take care of the Witch. Make sure nothing happens to her.”

Rolf slowly nodded and Doremi felt sorry for anything foolish enough to try and get past the three Vikings. Rolf was barely smaller than Thor, and slightly thinner. Naked from the waist up, the iron-hard muscles of his arms, his abdomen, and his clean-shaven face all looked like they had been chiseled and sculpted into perfect form. Sten, she already knew, was tough; and though she didn’t know who Lontz was, any of the other Scandians looked more than adequate to the task.

“Romulus, your job will be to cover Espidreen,” Raven continued. “Stay with her, unless it is apparent you can enter battle without placing her at risk. Mac Tavish, you’ll be on Cyllindrethifl. If you two leave them to enter battle, Fosmo--your job will be to stay with them as a last line of defense. However, don’t infer from my words that Cyl and Espy can’t fight. They can put down most men in a fight if they have to, but their job is to cast. I want them free to do that.”

“Raven makes a good point,” Espidreen spoke. “However powerful the Liche is, he is unlikely to have any warriors shielding him so he can cast. He’ll get off a spell or two and perhaps kill one or two of us--but the moment Thor, Nightshadow, Giles, or whomever, reaches him--he’s finished.”

From across the room, Rolf called out a question to Thor in the Scandian tongue. The Viking chieftain listened, and then nodded back.

“Rolf says the men don’t understand what a Liche is,” he spoke to Espidreen. “They know what a wizard is, but they don’t understand the word. Would you explain it to them?”

“Certainly,” Espidreen answered as she turned toward the Scandians. “A Liche is an extremely powerful undead wizard or Priest--which you would call a shaman--of at least the fifteenth circle of skill.

“Now when I use the word ‘circle’, I am referring to a term that has been invented for wizards to indicate the amount of skill they have. When I say that Nostradamus is ‘twentieth-circle’, I am saying that he has reached the highest possible skill in his spell-casting abilities. The term is only used for those who cast spells. You warriors, for example, do not have a corresponding term; you fight well or you don’t, without terms existing to define the amount of prowess you may possess.

“Beyond their casting abilities, Liches, through the aid of their gods, are able to go on even after death. They are living skeletons of a sort. Not human, not dead, but something in between. They cannot be killed by, for instance, a single sword thrust--they must be hacked apart or slain through magic. They are very bad fighters with weapons--their whole power lies in their magic. That magic is awesome by comparison to a living wizard. Once they achieve their Lichedom, they no longer need to memorize spells, for instance; they can cast any spell they have ever known. This effectively doubles the number of spells they can cast.

“In Nostradamus’ case, this means you have a being able to cast a combined one hundred and forty spells from his two disciplines--ten spells per rank! The number of potential spells he might actually have learned over the course of eight hundred years is incalculable. Certainly it is in the hundreds, if not thousands. He thus has a vast array of spells to choose from.

“I am confident we will defeat our enemy--but I take nothing away from his talents. Oh, and Raven,” she said, turning back to her mistress, “--Liches are particularly susceptible to the spell ether ball and a Necromancer spell called death’s hand or five fingers of death. They do not dodge things well, so an ether ball is deadly to them. If sucked into the Ethers by it, even if the shock does not kill them outright, the sudden removal from the School and its power would, in all likelihood, prove instantly fatal. However, they’re smart enough to know that so there is always the chance they may have fashioned some sort of protection against it. But if not, even apart from what the fighters can do to them, our ether balls should make a make a quick end of them.

“So far as the Necromancer spell I mentioned goes, it permits a priest to reach into a Liche--or anyone else, for that matter--and pull forth his heart, slaying the victim. Again, they may have devised some protection against that spell, but that shouldn’t be an issue for us regardless. We will be victorious!”

At hearing that, one of the Scandians leapt to his feet, swinging his axe over his shoulder and down into the table with a great crash!

Just show us where they are!” he shouted in the Norse tongue as his mates let out a thunderous cheer.

Raven buried her head in her hands, and sighed, “You don’t have to translate, Thor--we get the message.”

“I’m nay surre I want to know,” Mac Tavish spoke as the Scandian withdrew his axe from in front of a stunned Fosmo, who’d narrowly missed being cleaved in two, “but how do y’ become a Liche?”

Espidreen was still staring, bug-eyed, at the shattered end of the table, then she collected herself and responded to the question.

“The, uh--process by which they become Liches entails them calling upon their Dark Gods to grant them Lichedom, and sacrificing themselves on an altar of their chief deity. If their gods deem them worthy, they arise as Liches. If not, they stay dead. Once they become Liches, they can continue to accumulate knowledge, but their spell-casting abilities are locked. They can advance no further in power, though they gain the casting benefits I mentioned.

“Liches are universally evil; they cannot be trusted. Some, however, are more evil than others, and Nostradamus is the most evil of them all. Throckmorton is almost kind by comparison.”

“That’s true,” Doremi spoke up. “I never met Nostradamus, though I did meet Throckmorton. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat, but he almost seemed friendly.”

Raven was surprised. “How’d you come to meet Throckmorton?” she asked.

“Well, after I was done at the First School, I visited the Second to see if I they would let me see any Karnaki writings they had if I was willing to translate them as recompense.”

“And did they?”

“Yes,” Doremi replied with a nod. “They didn't have very much, and it only took me a few days, then I left Serpenalik with a trade caravan heading for Avalon through Sarvia. I eventually wound up being kidnapped by Gypsies, but that’s a whole other story.”

“Gypsies,” Raven muttered angrily. “Oh, that Gypsies had a single throat that I could cut it and rid the world of their infestation!”

“It’s not all their fault, Raven--when you’re hunted down and killed by Cossacks on sight, and not allowed to settle anywhere because everyone hates you, it’s understandable you might turn to less-than-honest means to survive. I’m not excusing it, but I understand it.”

“Perhaps they’re hated for good reason, Doremi,” the Mistress of Freeport said as she unconsciously opened and closed her left fist a few times. “In any event, what was your impression of Throckmorton?”

The Bard shrugged. “He seemed okay--for a Liche. I suppose if I had to work for a Liche, I’d rather work for him than Nostradamus. The Second School seems much more ‘normal’ a place than the First School. The evil at the First School is palpable--you can feel it. The atmosphere of the Second School is more tolerable.”

“He was merely acting amicable,” Espidreen opined. “That is one difference between the two Liches. Throckmorton, who, believe it or not, was once a Torrencian Noble, attempts to present himself more like a true king than Nostradamus. But make no mistake--he is not one whit less ruthless than Nostradamus; he merely makes more of an effort to seem reasonable.”

“It’s true,” Doremi noted, “that he was dressed in kingly robes from what I could see of him--his upper body stays in the shadows of his skull-shaped throne, thank goodness.”

“He say anything of interest?” Raven inquired.

Doremi shook her head. “No. He just asked why Nostradamus would take an interest in me, and I told him I didn’t know that he had. Then he thought for a moment and ordered one of his Priests to give me access to a Library where they kept some papyri. I was there for a week, and then left.”

“What do you think he meant by Nostradamus ‘taking an interest in you’?” Raven inquired, cautiously.

“I have no idea, Raven; I never spoke to Nostradamus--only to Precopius, Nostradamus’ lieutenant, and Nabonidas, his Captain of the Host.”

Raven wasn’t satisfied.

“Did Precopius ever say or do anything unusual?” she prompted.

Doremi considered the question.

“Yeah,” she finally said. “One time, he spotted me in a hallway, and asked if any of the songs Bards play can duplicate a time distortion spell. I told him no. They really don’t know much about Bards there.”

The Bard grew silent for a moment as her memory went back to the event.

“I can still remember how horrible it was to hear him,” she continued. “Dooooo any offfff the spellllls uuuuusable byyyyy Barddddds duuuuuplicaaaaate a timmmmme distorrrrrtionnnnn spelllll?” the Bard spoke, imitating the snake-like sibilation of the monster.

Raven looked over to Espidreen. “Why would he want to know that?”

Espidreen shrugged. “My supposition is that he was wondering if a time distortion spell might be created using some sort of device. A device that could enact a time distortion spell would be very useful: It would permit his minions to double their movement through time, and enable them to attack twice as quickly.”

The Mistress of Freeport nodded.

“Oh--and Throckmorton also was very interested in what goes on in the Upper School,” Doremi added. “I really had no idea, of course, but I could tell he was desperate to know what the Liches do up there.”

“That isn’t surprising,” Espidreen noted. “The Upper School is the one place his spies and Sorcery cannot penetrate.”

“Speaking of that,” Doremi mentioned as she positioned her hands as if holding a large sphere, “he’s got a huge crystal ball built into his throne. I’ve never seen one so big! You’d think that thing could let him look into the Upper School if he wanted!”

“We are aware of its existence,” Espidreen replied, “and we’d love to get our own hands on it! But even that crystal ball is probably limited by Nostradamus’ protective enchantments. Even if it were not, for Throckmorton to break decorum and use it to scry into the Upper School would be considered an act of war by Nostradamus. He doesn’t dare use it to spy on Nostradamus directly! There are bounds the two Schoolmasters, despite their evil designs, do not cross, lest the peace be broken.”

Raven thought for a moment, licking her lower lip.

“Espy, why did Nostradamus close off the Upper School in the first place?” she finally asked.

“No one is entirely certain, Raven,” the Witch answered. “We do know that it started when he required his top twelve Masters to become Liches.”

“Required it?!” the Mistress of Freeport exclaimed. “They didn’t have a choice?”

Espidreen shook her head. “I presume it was a defensive measure, Raven. By causing all those who could conceivably be a threat to him to become Liches, he guaranteed his safety because his power is such that he can control undead. Thus, his top masters came under his direct supernatural control in a way he could never enjoy so long as they were mortal. Soon after, he expelled all his other Masters from the Upper School and made it off limits to all but his Conclave. Really, the rest of the School is so vast they didn’t need the space, so there was nothing constraining them to keep the Upper School open. The Bard, here, is one of the few mortals since then to gain entrance up there since the closure.”

Raven settled back in her chair, contemplating.

“They’re doing something up there, Espy,” she concluded after a moment. “I don’t know what--but they’re doing something up there.”

“Of course they are, Raven,” the Witch responded, “--the Schoolmasters are always up to some nefarious plot and intrigue.”

There was silence for several moments until Sir Giles eventually asked, “How long doth a Liche live for?”

“Typically five or six hundred years,” Venivica interjected. “The oldest Liche ever known died just under his seven hundredth year, didn’t he, Espidreen?”

“That is correct,” Espidreen responded. “It was the Liche Secundum, of Disdoma.”

“How then doth Nostradamus yet live, being, as thou saith, over eight hundred seasons in age?”

“Nostradamus isn’t like other Liches, Giles,” Espidreen answered. “He supposedly never went through the process of becoming a Liche. It’s said that he simply never died--but his existence continued on, century after century. That’s what they say, anyway.”

“Be he immortal then?”

“No. In fact, his time is short. Over the past few decades he has begun to fade, and apparently his body is crumbling to dust. As it is now, they say he is half-spirit/half-skeleton, and in a few years he will become a shade altogether. When that happens, his lieutenant is expected to take his place.”

“If I might interject,” Desmore spoke up, “Throckmorton also is atypical for a Liche.”

“How so?” Raven queried, looking to the Wighead.

“As I’m sure Lady Espidreen can confirm,” the Wighead continued, “wizards undertaking Lichedom typically undergo the process as they near the end of their mortal lives.”

Espidreen nodded in agreement.

“Well, Throckmorton went against the grain--he became a Liche while still a relatively young man in good health. In fact, I believe he was scarcely over fifty seasons in age. This benefited him in that he is, to this day, said to be in robust health for a Liche.”

“Doremi,” Raven spoke, “you said you’d seen some of the Liches of the First School. Can you describe what they look like?”

Nervously, Doremi looked over to Raven, then looked down. “They’re--beautiful and terrible,” she said quietly. “Sometimes, if you see them when they’re not in an altered form, they look as Espidreen said--like skeletons. Other times, they’re invisible, but you see them as lights. I really can’t describe it...it’s like torchlight without a torch if that makes any sense. They also have the ability to entrance you by their presence. When I first saw Precopius, I had turned around in a hall and there he was--right in front of me. He looked like a ghost floating there...all white...almost beautiful in a way, but decrepit at the same time. When I saw him, I couldn’t move--I was frozen with fear. His glowing eyes looked into mine and I would have fainted except that I felt his the power of his will forcing me to stay on my feet. The next moment, he had vanished and I saw the torchlight I spoke of moving down the hall, away from me.”

She shuddered again, remembering the incident.

“Someone mentioned he would nay have any warriorrs a-guarrdin’ him,” Mac Tavish spoke. “How d’ y’ know that?”

“Let me show you,” Espidreen replied.

The Witch then reached over to the table and pulled off the second linen sheet to reveal another model. It was very similar to the other model in size, but its design was slightly different.

“This is the Second School of Sorcery,” she spoke.

Espidreen then reached down and grabbed a long, thin ivory wand from her place at the table and tapped the second model with it.

“You will note both Schools are approximately the same size, but their layout is slightly different. The Second School is a series of concentric square complexes, the first being an outer series of barracks and temples. An inner complex--this castle-like structure here--houses the various wizards’ quarters and the main Libraries and laboratories. At the very center of the School, separated from the second complex by a square courtyard running around its circumference, is the third and final complex. This is home to Throckmorton and his Masters. It contains quarters, laboratories, and private Libraries.”

Espidreen now pointed to a small castle atop the larger structure beneath it. “Here is Throckmorton’s Throne room and quarters, at the top and center of the School.”

She then pointed back to the First School.

“While the two Schools are generally similar in size and scale, they are laid out differently. Throckmorton’s School is built on a flat plain down in the city near the coast, while the First School is built into the side of a mountain overlooking the city. What in the Second School is the central complex has been moved up above the First School on a shelf overlooking the rest of the facility. This actually provides for a bit more room in the First School, and thus it has always been able to house a slightly larger compliment than the Second School.

“The Upper School is its own separate fortress and completely sealed off from the Lower School except by two large stairways here,” Espidreen said, pointing to a wide stairway at the northeast of a courtyard separating the three outer wings of the central complex from the highest tower at the very back of the structure in its own complex of towers and escarpments, “--and here.”

The Witch then indicated a similar set of stairs to the southwest.

“Unlike Throckmorton, who surrounds himself with his Masters and their apprentices in his central complex, Nostradamus, as noted, has closed off all of the Upper School to everyone except the members of his Conclave. These sets of stairs are the only means of getting from the Lower School to the Upper School. What’s more, you can’t even get to those stairs unless you come at them through the bottom levels of the Lower School--they’re not even reachable from the courtyards of the Lower School!”

“She’s right,” Doremi broke in. “You have to go through the bottom level of the Lower School, then pass through some catacombs--which are scary to boot--to finally come up a set of long galleries to enter the courtyards of the Upper School. Why they built it that way I don’t know. It’s sure a bother!”

“It was a defensive measure,” Espidreen explained. “They were preparing for war with the Elves, and weren’t certain what the outcome would be. By sealing off the two levels, the Upper School could, if necessary, isolate itself off from incursion by enemy forces if somehow they managed to take the Lower complex. The most effective means of frustrating an enemy’s attempts to storm the Upper School was by placing the passage from the Lower complex in the most out-of-the-way spot as possible. In fact, if I recall correctly, the ancient Scandians and Torrencians were stymied in their attempts to loot the Upper School because what remained of its wizards managed to seal off the Upper levels from them, so the armies laid waste to the Lower School, and eventually left.”

“Not true,” spoke Thor.

Espidreen shrugged. “Or so the Hocwrathians claim, anyway,” she replied discreetly. “But the main point is the Schools, from the very beginning, have focused on defending themselves against infiltration by enemies.”

“And Nostradamus continued that tradition by loading up the Upper School with enchantments preventing any sort of magical incursion,” Raven added. “You can’t portal into the place; the spell won’t work. You can’t use a spell allowing flight or levitation to enter it either.”

Word of Power, Raven?” someone asked from the other end of the room.

“Good question, whoever that was,” Raven answered. “Cyllindrethifl--another member of our group who isn’t with us right now--experimented with that in Throckmorton’s School. He’s loaded up his complex with the same sort of enchantments, and she found that a word of Power will not activate until you’re outside the central complex. Thus, both Liches’ central complexes are completely protected against magical ingress--or egress. Normally, this would work to their advantage, but in our case it will doom Nostradamus, for any reinforcements will be unable to reach him unless they take the long jog through the bottom of the Lower School to come up those two sets of stairs--where Thor’s Vikings will be waiting for them.”

“I rrespect the Scandians,” Mac Tavish spoke up as he nodded toward the back of the chamber, “but fifty of ‘em against the whole of the Lowerr School? How’ll they hold off s’ many men?”

“Don’t you worry about the Scandians, Mac Tavish,” Raven replied with an air of confidence. “There is every reason to believe the Lower School will be busy defending against an attack by Throckmorton while we’re in the Upper School.”

This statement elicited some incredulous mumbling from the other end of the table.

“What meaneth thou by this, Lady?” Sir Giles queried.

“Throckmorton is aware of our coming attack against Nostradamus,” Espidreen answered for her. “We believe he will attack the First School with us, keeping the forces in the Lower School busy while we take out the Upper.”

Doremi then twisted her head and, for the first time, displayed what Raven would forevermore dub the Doremi Twirl: Looking away while turning an ear toward her, Doremi fanned the air by her ear with her hand rotating in a circular motion.

“And you know this because?” she asked, awaiting an answer.

Raven squinted back at her.

“Because he’d be an idiot not to!” she exclaimed. “This is the best chance to eliminate Nostradamus he’ll ever have! Throckmorton could never marshal a team as powerful as ours to hit Nostradamus directly, so with us attacking Nostradamus from above, the forces in the Lower School will be wide open to attack from his own School with Nostradamus too busy with us to aid them. Throckmorton will be watching us to see what happens, and the moment we hit the Upper School I project he’ll send out his own forces. But even if Throckmorton does nothing, a strategy has been devised to give the Scandians tactical superiority no matter how many defenders come at them. And, if luck is with us, Nostradamus won’t even realize we’re even there until we’re breaking down the doors of his Throne room. Remember, this whole complex is empty except for the dozen Liches that make up his Conclave. And don’t be misled by the small scale of these models--two or three of my Inns could fit inside the Upper School. Divide up that amount of space between twelve Liches, and the chances of us even seeing another Liche are almost nil.”

Doremi looked over to Raven. “You might be right,” she said, “but that’s a big gamble to take. There are sure to be several in the tower, at least.”

“Doremi, even if we happen to run into one or two of them, how long do you think they’ll last against Nightshadow, Thor, or Giles? They can’t use spells to escape, and they’ll be cut down in two or three swings from men as powerful as we’ve got with us.”

The comment gave Doremi pause. This was starting to make sense. Now she began to understand just how complicated the chess game was that Raven was playing.

“S’ that towerr’s empty then, but forr the Liche ‘n his frriends?” asked Mac Tavish.

“How about it, Doremi?” Raven continued in response. “You ever see any sort of guards or guardians up there?”

The Bard shook her head. “The only thing I know of up there are Liches. Be that as it may, I can’t believe they don’t have some sort of magical defenses throughout the tower, but I never encountered any. Keep in mind, though, I never went into the actual tower itself; I was limited to a small portion of the building the tower sits on.”

Romulus had been looking over the model of the First School and one of the buildings of the Upper School caught his attention: it faced outward at the center of the fore end of the complex, a huge rectangular escarpment with what looked like an open doorway facing out toward the Lower School.

“It strikes me that doorway there,” he said, pointing to it, “is either awfully big, or else this place isn’t quite as large as you’re making it out.”

“That ‘doorway’, as you call it, “Espidreen replied, “is over a hundred feet tall.”

As her words sank in, the Gladiator fell silent as he began to realize just how massive the School actually was.

“A question, Espy,” Raven spoke up, glancing to the Witch, “--when, precisely, do you think Nostradamus will know we’ve entered the School? He won’t automatically know, will he?”

Espidreen considered the question for a moment.

“Were he a Witch who had bound the essence of the School to him, I would be concerned,” she finally answered. “As it is, he’s only a Necromancer; he hasn’t got the power and abilities we do. He should not be aware of our presence, lest we trip some sort of alarm, or some minion of his alerts him.”

“Which thus requires that you kill anything and everything that moves,” Venivica spoke.

Espidreen nodded her head in agreement. “Venivica is right, Raven--we can’t leave anything alive no matter how insignificant. If we see so much as a rat, we must kill it, lest it somehow warn Nostradamus.”

“I can just see it,” mumbled the Gladiator, “--the most powerful warriors in Islay chasing after rats.”

Raven brought her hand up to her chin. “Espy...assume a worst-case scenario. Say Nostradamus knows the moment we enter the School. Can we get to him before his reinforcements can?”

“Doubtful, Raven,” the Witch answered. “In that event, the Support teams will be hit almost immediately. While I still think they can hold off what tries to come up from below, if Nostradamus has the Conclave attack them while we’re inside....”

Morgaine finished the sentence: “They’ll be wiped out.”

“They’ll be wiped out,” Espidreen repeated. “Not even fifty Scandians, even if they’re reinforced by a few of our Dwarven allies, can survive an attack by a dozen Liches. I think we can manage an escape, but it will be close, and everyone else--and everything else--will be lost.”

Raven held up her hands. “Everyone quiet; let me think for a moment.”

Doremi found this fascinating as she looked over to Raven and watched the gears turn in her head as her hostess slowly rubbed her chin while she slipped deep into thought.

There was silence for about half a minute and then Raven spoke again.

“Okay...we’re going to hold back on bringing in the Support teams. The Assault team will enter the School alone. If he knows we’re there and thinks that’s all we have, I project he’ll attack us right off. If he doesn’t do that, it means one of two things: One--he does not automatically know when and if the School has been infiltrated. Two--he magically knows we’re there, but rather than just coming in and attacking, he’ll try to conjure up some sort of trap or strategy to use against us. If the second scenario occurs, he’ll keep his eyes only on us and will probably miss the Support teams if they wait a short time before coming in.”

Espidreen nodded. “Impeccable logic, Raven. But if Nostradamus realizes we’re there, his personality isn’t of the sort suggesting that he’ll weave together some plan to kill us with minimal losses to himself--he’ll have the Conclave and everything he’s got in the Upper School attack us the moment he realizes we’re there. That’s how we’ll know we’ve been seen.”

Raven brought her fist down upon the table and smiled.

“Then we’ll destroy them right then and there! Those Liches will come straight for us and hit us piecemeal as they reach us at different times from different areas of the School. And even if they make a coordinated attack, between all of us we can take them because they won’t have had time to devise a strategy that considers the full power of what they’re facing.”

“I agree,” Nightshadow spoke. “Let him send his Liches! We’ll send them on to Hell as quickly as we see them!”

Raven looked over to him. “Now that’s the spirit! See, Doremi?” she asked, glancing to the Bard. “Faith and confidence! All right--if we get through a quarter of an hour in that place with no signs we’ve been spotted, we’ll all be safe. Venivica--delay bringing in the Teams for a little past a quarter of an hour. Don’t start the wheels rolling until we contact you--you understand what I mean.”

Venivica remained silent, but nodded.

“If we get our quarter-hour, the Support teams will be able to get in position and he may never realize they’re there. So listen carefully: Not one word about the Scandians or the Support teams must be uttered! Is everyone clear on that? As far as any of you know, we’re all there is. Don’t breathe a word about anyone else--he may hear us if he realizes we’re there and has some way to scry us.”

“Just what do we do if he detects us and summons his Conclave to his Throne room and we have to fight all of them at once?” Romulus asked. “They’ll outnumber us, and we won’t even be able to go one-on-one with them!”

Raven rolled her eyes.

“If he’s that stupid, Romulus, we send Nightshadow into the Throne room, close the doors behind him, and then wait until he comes out with Nostradamus’ head! Remember, magic doesn’t hurt him. He can wipe out Nostradamus and the Conclave by himself if he has to.”

“Well...then why not just send him in then? Why do you need anyone else?”

Raven’s lips drew tightly together and Doremi could tell that she was becoming irritated with the Gladiator's constant negative comments and questions.

“Three reasons, Romulus: One--versatility. What’s he do if he comes to a door with a lock he has to pick? Two--some of us have a score to settle with Nostradamus, and we want a piece of him. Three--that Mind Sapphire of his doesn’t have an infinite supply of power. It could conceivably be drained if he has to resist a legion of spells and if he has to fight a host of undead by himself. I personally believe he could do it single-handedly, but we’re not going to ask him to risk his life while we sit back and wait.”

“Also,” Nightshadow spoke, “this Talisman may heal me, but I still feel the blows, I still feel the blades cut into me. I no more want to experience a sword thrust through the gut any more than you do even if you have an elixir to heal yourself with. Battle wounds, even if you get healed from them, aren't pleasant experiences. Having other fighters with me helps spread the risk around fairly. But don’t you worry--I’ll be taking the brunt of any attacks.”

“One question--how do y’ know Nostrradamus’ll be waitin’ forr us all nice ‘n handy in his thrrone rroom?” Mac Tavish wondered. “What’s to stop him frrom comin’ out forr a midnight stroll, ‘n seein’ a buncha Scandians in his courrtyarrd, eh?”

“Good question, Mac Tavish,” Raven answered. “In that respect, we are very fortunate. Liches, as noted, have one great weakness: they must stay near the source of their power or they crumble to dust. In the case of Nostradamus, he is so old that he must stay inside the central complex, which is built over what is called the Pit. Now the Pit, for those of you who do not know, is just what it sounds like: a great black shaft that extends beyond the deepest bowels of Jewel into Hell itself.”

At hearing this, murmurs arose from the room.

Mac Tavish’s jaw dropped in shock. “Y’ mean Hell--wherre Asmodeus lives? That Hell?!”

“That is correct, Highlander,” Espidreen confirmed. “The two Schools were built using the power of Hell itself. That’s why they’re so large, and why so much magical power is contained within their walls. Both Schools, by the way, are dedicated to Asmodeus, although they pay tribute to all the Dark Gods. But it is the power of Hell flowing from the Pit up to the School that sustains Nostradamus and his Conclave of Liches. The greatest focus of power in the School is the Throne room, where Nostradamus spends his time. That Throne room is positioned directly above the Pit. The further one gets from it, the weaker is the power flowing from the Pit. Thus, Nostradamus, because of his age and his crumbling, decrepit body, must stay as close to the Pit as possible. The further he gets from it, the weaker he becomes. Just how far he can move is a matter of speculation, but we’re certain that if he leaves the tower complex itself he’ll die in minutes. Thus, he cannot ‘take a midnight stroll’; he is forced to stay in his tower or, at best, within the central complex. The other--normal--Liches are not quite so limited. They can go anywhere they wish within the Upper or Lower School, though they dare not walk out the gates. Now before you ask what’s to stop them from ‘taking a midnight stroll,’ observe the tower complex.”

Espidreen pointed to the tower and drew the pointer up to the top. “Numerous windows on the first three levels of the lower structure, but only a few on the fourth level, none of which can be opened. As to Nostradamus’ tower itself--no windows at all,” she spoke.

She then drew the pointer along the outer ring of buildings of the Upper School.

“No windows, or else bricked-up windows above the third or fourth stories,” she observed. “Why, you ask? Because the Liches cannot abide light; that’s one reason our spells are so devastating to them! They sealed off the windows of the areas they frequent so sunlight can’t penetrate during the day. I venture to say that if we ask the Bard where the Liches spend their time, she will reply it is either in the tower itself or in the Upper School areas where there are no windows.”

Doremi nodded. “You’re probably right, but keep in mind that place is huge, and they could be spread throughout it, and I’d never know. But I certainly didn’t see them very often when I was there, thank goodness!”

“Thus,” the Witch continued, “we believe the Liches are unlikely to spot anyone in the courtyard, and since they have no capacity to enjoy strolling in the moonlight, we can presume they will simply continue to occupy themselves with their sorcerous studies and activities, leaving us free to invade the place with little direct chance of their discovering us before we discover them.

“Of course, it’s possible one could come outside for some legitimate reason,” Espidreen admitted, “but provided the Scandians stay alert, if a Liche does happen to take a walk out there, they should be able to see and destroy it before it can escape or alert others.”

“So they be like vampires, then?” Giles asked. “The light of yonder sun be death to them?”

“They are more powerful than vampires,” Espidreen replied. “Sunlight would destroy a vampire in only a few moments, whereas Liches could survive somewhat longer--although they would be in agonizing pain.”

“Espy,” Raven spoke up, “I know we’ve talked about this before, but what’s your best guess? Can Nostradamus leave his Throne room?”

Espidreen looked down for moment, pondering the question.

“Raven, we have to presume that he can go anywhere within the complex, lest he appear out of nowhere and surprise us. But my personal opinion is that he is bound to the Throne room. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if he can’t even get off his throne without turning to dust!”

“Cyllindrethifl is of the opinion that he can roam outside of the Throne room in the tower complex,” Raven spoke, “but that his power is greatly weakened. She thinks, though, that his power inside the Throne room is considerable, and that his spells may even function at maximum possible effectiveness there.”

“That would not be a good thing, Raven.”

Raven shrugged. “Again, as you say, he may get one or two spells off, but that’s it. The main thing is, he shouldn’t prove to be anything to worry about until we reach him.”

“Anyone know the last time Nostradamus was actually seen outside of his tower?” Thor inquired.

“It was before he started to fade,” Espidreen answered, “around twenty seasons ago. He and Throckmorton called for a Wizards’ Conclave at the First School, and all Hocwrath’s Schoolmasters gathered there for three days, hashing out some things, and learning the two main Liches’ new decrees for Hocwrath. Throckmorton couldn’t come, of course, so he sent his second-in-command. When it was over, Nostradamus returned to his tower, and so far as I know, he never came down into the Lower School again. From that point, or soon thereafter, he started to fade, and only the power from the Pit kept him from going all together. At this point, he can’t leave even if he wants to--he’d fade into nothingness if he tried.”

Thor nodded, satisfied.

“Oh, and a word of advice,” Espidreen added, “--do not use the name of Asmodeus, or any demon, near the proximity of the Pit. Any name spoken there might well be heard by the being in question, and attract his attention.”

“That’s a bloody nice thought, eh!” Fosmo exclaimed.

“Speaking of Asmodeus, Espy,” Raven interjected, “--what will his view be regarding our attacking the School? Any chance he knows what we’re planning, and will warn Nostradamus?”


Raven looked to her. “Not that I mind that answer, but you sound uncommonly certain.”

“Whether he knows of our plans or not, Asmodeus’ position will be that if Nostradamus is too weak to hold power, he deserves to fall and be replaced by someone else who will be more effective in advancing his agenda. There is no loyalty in Hell--the strong rule until someone stronger defeats them. We’ll have no problems from Asmodeus--the gods are forbidden to become directly involved in the affairs of mortals anyway, so he can’t warn Nostradamus directly, let alone directly aid him.”

“Asmodeus aside, what about the other Liches?” Romulus asked. “Can we really be that sure they won’t spot us inside? That they don’t have some of them on patrol against invaders?”

“Let’s ask Doremi about that,” Raven responded. “Doremi, what do you know about what the other Liches do with their time? What are they likely to be doing during the night hours? And did you ever see any signs that they patrol the complex?”

“Well,” Doremi answered, “as to patrolling the complex, no--I saw no sign that they do that. As to what they actually do with their time, I can’t say for sure. I didn’t want to be there at night, and I didn’t stay past dusk very often. I think that during the day the Liches mostly keep to themselves and rest, staying out of the sunlight as you noted. I suspect that even if they’re sealed off from the sunlight they’re still somewhat weakened during daylight hours, but I don’t know that for certain. At night, though, I imagine they become more active and come together to do whatever it is that Liches do. Every so often, when I was there after sundown, one of them would come to use the Libraries in the lower tower complex. Otherwise, either I didn’t see a sign of them, or else I knew they were in the complex by the weird noises I heard.”

“Noises?” Raven asked. “What sort? Demonic growls? Inhuman screams?”

Doremi shook her head. “No, they weren’t like that. They were weird noises...sounds like explosions. I suppose those must have been spells. But there were other noises too: wah wah wah wah wah...sh sh sh sh sh--noises like that. I‘ve never heard anything like them, and have no idea what could make sounds like that.”

Raven looked over to Espidreen to see if she might speculate, but the Witch simply shook her head.

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Raven concluded.

“What if one of the Liches needs to go down to the Lower School for some reason?” Romulus now asked. “They have to go down one of those two stairways, and they’d be sure to spot the Scandians.”

Raven let out a breath. “That is one chance we’re taking, I do admit. But they don’t go back and forth all that often, and we’ll gamble none of them will want to go to the Lower School on this particular night. Even if one of them does come down there, he’ll run into at least twenty-five armed Scandians and one Witch. As Espy said, they should be able to handle a single Liche.”

“They will,” Thor assured the group.

“Keep in mind our Scandian allies are every bit as tough as they look,” Espidreen spoke up. “These are not just fifty Scandians--these are the most powerful warriors that can be found in Scandia!”

At Rolf’s translation the words, the Vikings exploded into a cheer.

“Every one of them has proven himself in combat countless times,” the Witch continued after their exuberance died down, “and can take on three or four of Nostradamus’ mercenaries at once and come out the winner. So don’t be misled by their small numbers--their quality far exceeds their quantity.”

“Doremi,” Raven now asked, “from what you know of the tower complex, is there anyplace we could be certain would be empty of Liches? Anywhere they don’t go? A place that perhaps we could climb up to and enter through a window if necessary?”

The Bard thought for a moment.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. Doremi then arose, moved up the table, and pointed to the model, indicating some windows at one corner of the third story of the complex.

“There! That’s their Music Library! They would never let me in there, and Precopius said there was nothing inside but a few basic manuscripts about Bardic magic, but I guarantee no Liche would ever be found there. The same probably holds true for this room here, next to it. That’s their Karnaki library, where I translated their papyri for them. I suppose, if you wanted, Fosmo could climb up there from the outside and help you get in through a window, but I thin--if I draw you a map--it would be just as easy to walk up from the bottom level since that’s an awfully long climb.”

“Perhaps I’m foolish for asking,” Romulus spoke, “but just how is it that we’re supposed to get to the tower in the first place? Walk in from the outside?”

“No,” Espidreen answered. “Let me get our drawing board, and I’ll show you.”

Espidreen walked over to a black slate board that had been mounted in a frame with rollers and began to push it toward the table. Doremi took the opportunity of the pause in the lecture to return to her seat and lean over to Raven, who noted the move and likewise leaned toward her to see what she wanted.

The Bard nodded toward the other end of the table. “He’s a handsome man, huh?” she said in a low whisper.

Raven looked around Doremi to try and see whom she meant, and Fosmo caught sight of her looking down toward him. He grinned and waved.

“Fosmo?!” she whispered back.

“No, not Fosmo--Romulus!”

“Oh,” Raven answered with a shrug.

Espidreen had wheeled the board to the table and now took a piece of chalk, drawing a quick side view sketch of the First School and the mountain upon which it sat.

She indicated the bottom of the sheer cliffs behind the back of the School.

“Here, at the bottom of the mountain, are a series of caverns. The whole mountain is honeycombed with them. They lead up to the bottom of the Lower School where there is supposedly a secret entrance inside. We will reach the tower by ascending through the caverns to the catacombs, then enter the Upper School and make for the tower.”

“Surely it nay can be that easy,” Giles exclaimed.

“It’s not,” Espidreen confirmed. “Those tunnels are filled with wyverns, spiders, and a host of deadly cavern denizens in addition to whatever Nostradamus may have waiting in them for intruders. What’s more, they split off in a thousand different directions. To find the precise path up would take weeks of exploration.”

“Then how will we find the way up?” queried the Gladiator.

“We have a map,” Raven answered.

At this, the men at the table looked back and forth at each other.

“Just where would you find a map showing a secret way to infiltrate the First School?” Romulus asked incredulously.

“Espidreen was apprenticed to Arcana,” Raven answered. “Some of you may have heard of her--she was a powerful Witch and treasure hunter who lived in Hocwrath a few decades ago. She found an ancient map at one of the archives in Disdoma showing the way up the tunnels, which Espidreen has a copy of.”

“I’ve heard of Arcana,” Romulus spoke. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t she die doing exactly what we’re planning--sneaking into the First School to loot the catacombs?”

“We presume she did, yes,” Espidreen responded.

“Well, then why will we fare any better?”

“Use your head, Romulus.” Raven answered. “Arcana had a tough group, but we’re going in with a vastly more powerful team of champions. Nothing in those caverns is going to be a problem for us. We’ll be through them in only two or three hours. Then it’s up the tower to Nostradamus; kill him; drag our booty back out, then portal home.”

The Gladiator didn’t seem convinced, but he held his peace and slipped down into his chair.

“What sort of Fellowship had the Witch?” the Knight queried.

Raven thought for a moment.

“Well, let’s see. There was Arcana herself, who was--what, Espy?--a seventeenth-circle Witch?”

“Correct, Raven.”

“There was Nebo, of course--he was an sixteenth-circle Necromancer as I recall. There was Jen the Fair, Arcana’s First Apprentice, who had just made thirteenth-circle and was about to leave to strike out on her own, but she wanted to come on this one last adventure with her mistress. They had three good fighters in the group, as I remember, along with a Torrencian Bard. Last of all, there was Espidreen, Arcana’s Second Apprentice, whom they left behind since she was only eighth-circle back then.”

“Lady,” Mac Tavish spoke, looking to Raven, “I just noticed...have we nay any Prriests a-goin’ wi’ us?”

“And just why would we need Priests?” Espidreen demanded in response.

Romulus pivoted to his right to glare at her.

“We’re going into a fortress filled with undead, and you don’t think a Necromancer might be a useful thing to have along?”

“We’re going there to kill undead, not exorcise undead, Gladiator. A Necromancer foreign to the School would find his abilities to exorcise or control undead all but useless. Anything he could exorcise, we could also kill easily.”

“All right, but wouldn’t a Necromancer’s healing abilities still come in handy for us?” the Gladiator questioned.

“You will be given adequate elixirs of healing to keep you healthy. Aside from that, I personally will not be in any party containing a Necromancer,” Espidreen declared.. “I will adventure with Witches. I will fight alongside Druids--but I’ll not lower myself to fellowship with a Necromancer under any circumstances! I’d sooner fight with the Gypsies!”

The Witch emphasized the point by snapping her finger down to the top of the table.

“Hear! Hear!” Duchess Lydia exclaimed from across the room as her Druids and some of the Witches simultaneously broke into applause.

Doremi suddenly came to attention.

“Raven, I think I just found the flaw in your plan,” she spoke as the applause died away.

An icy stare met her gaze.

“What flaw would that be, Doremi?” the Mistress of Freeport asked.

“Discounting the caverns, you’re going to find that whomever designed the First School didn’t think like you do.”

Raven smiled and laughed. “Thank goodness--or we’d really have some problems.”

That comment elicited a few chuckles from Morgaine and those who knew Raven well.

“We’ll see if you still think it’s funny after I explain,” Doremi continued. “Just how much time do you think you’ll have inside the School to do all this?” she asked.

“Minimal, but sufficient,” Espidreen answered from down the table.

“That’s what I thought,” Doremi exclaimed. “Raven, if you were going to build the First School, knowing you as I do, I can guess you’d design it very practically: Nice straight corridors and sections laid out in nice, efficient squares. To go from one area to another, you’d walk down one corridor, take the stairs, turn right, and there you’d be.”

Raven’s grin was starting to fade.

“Well...Serpen, Gorus, or whomever built it, didn’t design it like that. The whole complex is almost like a maze. You have corridors turning into galleries, turning into stairs, turning into Libraries, turning into laboratories. There are very few convenient passages for quick travel. I’m not saying you can’t figure out how to get through it, but it’ll take time. You’re not going to just walk from one part to the other.”

Raven was now looking worried as she pondered the repercussions of Doremi's comments.

“You hadn’t realized this, I take it,” Thor now spoke, looking hard at her.

“It’s--irrelevant,” Raven responded. “We’ll figure it out. Despite the complex’s height, it’s only got four levels to the base and then, supposedly, five levels to the tower itself--right, Doremi? That’s what rumor claims, anyway.”

“Well, yeah, in a sense that’s true, but--”

“And if we can just get to the Pit, Fosmo can scale up the sides to the top level and we can rope-climb up, bypassing the lower stories anyway.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Fosmo exclaimed. “Me scale a pit leadin’ down to Hell? Me don’t know that me likes that idea!”

Raven dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand. “Fosmo, there’s no wall you can’t climb, and we’ll have you roped off anyway if you fall. Don’t complicate things by needless worry.”

“Well, if we have the lady herre as a guide,” Mac Tavish spoke, “I s'pose she can walk us thrrough therre, eh?”

“Unfortunately,” Raven answered, “Doremi won’t be joining us. She’s rather skeptical of our chances, and has opted to stay behind.”

“At least there’s one person at this table with some sense,” Romulus grunted.

“I can probably make you a map of the area I know,” Doremi offered.

“It’s just as well she isn’t coming,” Espidreen spoke. “This is, as you say, a dangerous undertaking. The last thing we need is to nursemaid a Bard on an operation this critical.”

Instantly, Doremi was furious.

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” she demanded, rising to her feet.

“Simply that you Bards can’t fight,” Espidreen answered matter-of-factly. “This is a dangerous quest. We need warriors unafraid to charge creatures they know are twice as powerful as they are. We need Witches able to blow apart demons and undead with their spells. The last thing we need is to entertain our enemies with prose and song.”

Doremi gnashed her teeth and stopped herself as she was about to use a particularly bad word.

“Let me tell you something about Bards,” she finally spoke. “Bardic magic is a highly specialized field. Unlike you, a Bard doesn’t have a goddess granting her the abilities to do magic. The Bard has only her own skill to enable her to manipulate sound into doing useful things. She has to make sure she’s an absolute master of her instruments because she’s not allowed to make mistakes. For her songs to function, she needs to play her songs perfectly--each time, every time, often while something is charging or attacking her--and she has to do it without a fighter assigned to keep her safe! She’s got to make sure the strings of her instrument vibrate at precisely the right rate to hit the pitch that enacts the song’s power. Even the slightest error in playing a song that the best minstrel would find a challenge to play causes the song to fail.

“You might be a powerful spell-caster, but the next time you cast a seventh rank spell that only works because your goddess makes it work for you, just remember the Bard at your side has no god helping her--she has only her own skill to duplicate the spells that only work for you if your goddess wants them to!”

Espidreen glared at the Bard with fire in her eyes, but she held her peace as both stared each other down while the room became quiet as a tomb.

Eventually, Raven started chuckling.

“Well, I guess you been told, Espy,” she said, reaching up and grasping the Bard’s arm. “Doremi, sit down. Espidreen, get that mad look off your face.”

Doremi, keeping her eyes on the Witch, lowered herself back in her chair. Then she turned to Raven. “I’ll go with you,” she spoke. “Maybe I can teach you all some things about Bards.”

Raven looked surprised.

“I’m sure you’ll be a valuable addition to the Fellowship, Doremi,” she finally spoke with a smile.

Then her look turned serious.

“Okay, pay attention,” she spoke loudly to all present as her eyebrows narrowed. “I’ll say this one time only: During this Operation I expect all of you to act as a team. I don’t care if your worst enemy is fighting alongside you, I expect you to support him like you would your own brother. I don’t care if it’s a Scandian and a Krellan, a Witch and a Gladiator, a Bard and a Knight, or what have you--if any of you gives me cause to think you’re holding back supporting another member of the Fellowship for personal reasons, I swear I’ll kill you on the spot as an example to the others, and I don’t care a whit who you are! Are we clear on that?”

The room was dead silent.

“All right,” Raven said after a few moments. “Let’s continue.”

The Mistress of Freeport looked over to the Bard, who was still stiff from her confrontation with Espidreen.

“Doremi, I’ve projected and allotted four hours to go from the bottom of the tower up to the top of the tower complex and to get out again. If necessary, we can stretch it to five hours. Do you believe we can do it in that amount of time?”

Doremi quickly went over in her head what she knew about the tower, and pondered the question for a few moments. Finally, she nodded.

“If you--I mean we--don’t run into anything hindering our movement through there, yes, I think we can get to the top of the tower in three or four hours, even given our unfamiliarity with the upper levels, provided that we move fast. You’d have to add into that whatever fighting we may run into. And just how long it would take to kill Nostradamus, I can’t even guess. I suppose you all might have a better idea than me how long it takes to kill a Liche. Assuming we live--I suppose we could get down a lot faster than we came up, so yes, four or five hours might do it. But that’s really cutting it close.”

“I’d like to go back to the point about Necromancers,” Romulus spoke. “Sometimes warriors fighting monsters twice as tough as they are don’t have time to drink down an elixir if they get wounded....”

“In that case, Cyllindrethifl or myself will take up the slack, and heal you,” Espidreen replied. “There is nothing a Necromancer can do for you that we can’t.”

“Hey, Raven!” Fosmo suddenly spoke up from his end of the table. “Me thinks fer luck our fellowship ought t’ have a name, eh. Me suggests, The Hounds a–hunting!”

“Fosmo,” Raven groaned, “I don’t waste time with such nonsense. But if you want to call us that for luck, be my guest.”

Hounds a-hunting it is then!” the Cutpurse said, excitedly.

“Lady,” Sir Giles now spoke up, “when beginneth our quest?”

“We depart for Hocwrath tomorrow morning,” the Mistress of Freeport answered. “All of you will be spending the night at the villa, and the Assault team and some of the Scandians will assemble here at dawn. Everyone will be portaled to Hocwrath by Espidreen at that time, and Venivica will portal the rest of the Scandians to us later, once we’re near the School.”

Raven then let out a breath. “I think we could all use little break,” she spoke, turning around and beckoning to some servants, who quickly began wheeling in carts of food and drink. “Let’s stretch our legs for a minute, and grab a snack.”

Doremi, still shaking and unhappy at herself for speaking up so rudely, decided a break would be a good thing, and so she arose and walked over to a cart to pour herself a cup of wine, hoping it would relax her.

“May I speak with you?” came a woman’s voice from behind, speaking in a flawless, cultured Torrencian accent.

Doremi turned to see that Duchess Lydia had walked up behind her.

“I am Duchess Lydia--a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Doremi curtsied. “The pleasure is mine, Duchess Lydia,” she answered.

“I wonder if I might be so bold as to ask you a favor? I’m aware of your adventure in finding Dellenthar’s Mandolin and Myrfyr’s Cudgel. Although I am not Avalonian--as you might surmise--all us Druids owe the Avalonians a debt for our practices springing from the Avalonian Druids of the First Age. I should find it absolutely marvelous if you would--when this is over--share the tale of your quest with me.”

Oh, certainly,” Doremi answered, smiling. “It was a great quest, and I’d be glad to tell you about it. They didn’t think there’d be any fighting involved, but it turned out there was a gorgon, and an ancient tomb complex that you had locate by finding some cunningly hidden markers and clues--it was quite an adventure!”

“It sounds smashing! I can’t wait!”

Lydia reached out and grasped Doremi’s arm. “I do hope you’ll come through this all right,” she spoke. “This undertaking is far more dangerous than Raven is willing to let on. Stay at the back of the group. Don’t try to show up Espidreen by charging into battle. And for goodness’ sake, stay back as far as you possibly can when they find the Liche.”

Lydia then reached up and removed a golden torc from her neck in the shape of a snake, placing it in the Bard’s hand.

“Take this. If something comes at you, cast it at whatever is coming. It will become a serpent, and fight for you.”

“Oh, thank you!” Doremi exclaimed.

“If it survives, you can return it when you’re done. I wish you the best of luck.”

Doremi smiled and slipped the torc around her neck. Then she caught sight of Mac Tavish speaking with Thor near the table.

“Look over there,” she said to Lydia as she nodded their direction. “Isn’t it interesting how Mac Tavish and Thor you can tell have the same ancestors. They look very similar, don’t they?”

“Yes, they do,” Lydia agreed, looking back. “The Highlanders have kept many of the old ways, unlike the rest of the lowland Torrencians who have--‘matured’--since the First Age into what they are now.”

As Lydia and Doremi spoke, Raven turned back to Stormie. “Come show me what you’ve drawn, Stormie,” she spoke.

The child eagerly got up and brought her stack of drawings over to the table, laying them before Raven, who wrapped her arm around the child’s waist, pulling her close as she looked through them.

“Hey, you haven’t danced for me in a while,” she noted.

“No one plays music for me,” Stormie answered.

“Well, the lady you met the other night plays music. We’ll have her play something for you sometime and you can dance for me again.”

“‘Kay,” Stormie answered with a smile.

Espidreen took the opportunity in the break to move from where she had been giving her lecture, and drew next to Raven.

She leaned over to whisper, “How did I do?”

Raven didn’t look up, but a smile passed over her face as she glanced through the drawings. “Excellent, as always,” she whispered back.