Leslie let Guard fall to his knees, coughing his small meal from the morning out of his mouth, sweat streaming down his face. “Erk,” he gurgled, spitting on the bright green, close-cropped grass that surrounded the Sorcerer Dach’s castle of trees. “Yargle.”
He collapsed on his side and rolled over, looking up at Leslie, who gazed down at him without expression. “I don’t know how you do that all the time,” Guard said finally. “I feel like somebody hit me in the chest with a hammer.”
He thought he saw the faintest trace of a smile on Leslie’s impassive face. “It’s easy by myself. Harder—and hotter—the more I take with me. You’ve put on weight. Since last time.”
“Hot, yes,” Guard murmured, trying to sit up. He felt feverish. The spot on the back of his neck where Leslie had placed her lips still felt like it was on fire. As he finally did manage to sit upright, he touched the fold of his belly self-consciously. Leslie was right, of course, and she would know—he had put on weight, perhaps a full stone, since he had stopped working the fields. Diplomacy was not without rigorous activity, but it was something short of the ten-hour days he had been used to spending in the fields and tending the Sisters’ flocks. And the food was often better, and there was often a great deal of it. The etiquette of elfin banquets often left Guard so stuffed with meat, bread and ale he could barely move. And the Tarm Elves, whatever else you could say about them, were no slouches at preparing breakfast, either. Roast pig with sweetfruit chutney, condor eggs poached and served in lemon butter with goat’s cheese—he could almost smell it, and, at the moment, it made him want to throw up again.
“If you wish to travel much with me, it will get easier with time,” Leslie said. “It is probably best that you don’t eat on a day you wish to travel with me. And do not drink for an hour before. And no mead or ale or wine for forty-eight hours. I suggest you avoid it, before or after.”
Guard tried to stand up, and then fell back on his rear. “I feel like I’ve been kicked by a horse. Gods. My head is pounding.”
“Yes, it does that. It gets easier, but never easy. It keeps—“ she paused. “It gets easier,” she finished.
Guard looked up at her. “It keeps what? You were going to say something else.”
“I decided not to say.”
Guard finally found his footing and stood up, able now to look eye-to-eye with Leslie. “Decided not to say? Why?”
“Because I decided not to say.”
“All right,” Guard muttered. It was her prerogative, and there were more pressing matters. Brushing himself off, he looked up at the massive, towering oak, redwood and ironwood trees that made up the main structure of the Sorcerer Dach’s castle. He looked back briefly towards Thorn, to the extensive thicket of trees, bushes and brambles he normally had to traverse to get to Dach’s castle—even with a horse, there was no avoiding the thicket, if you wanted to call on Dach. Pounding head and aching stomach or no, Leslie’s form of travel was, without question, much faster. And probably less difficult, just more concentrated.
He stepped on the first of the massive, interlocking tree roots that made up the steps to the two massive wooden doors—and the doors swung open. Guard blinked. Normally, he at least had to raise his hand to knock.
The Sorcerer Dach stepped out, his bearded and bespectacled face less than serene for the first time in Guard’s recollection. He looked . . . distracted, somehow. That was not a good sign. The Sorcerer Dach was always serene and unconcerned. Worried and distracted—that had to be bad. What was more, his gray and brown robes were dirty and didn’t entirely seem to fit him. It was the first time Guard could think of that he had ever seen the good Sorcerer Dach look so, well, disheveled.
“Guard. Good, good. I’m so glad you could make it so quickly. I—it has been a long day. A long night, and a long day. And then another long night. I apologize, I haven’t slept, I know I appear something less that well-kept. Please, come in.”
Guard raised his eyebrows. He had only been in the good Sorcerer’s castle once, and not for very long, and not very far into it, at that. Usually, Dach met him outside, or on top, or in the gardens, out behind his castle in the shadow of Hoan Jolot Mountain. He couldn’t recall a time that the Dach had just asked him to come in.
Nodding, he began up the stairs and looked back, where Leslie stood, head bowed, not moving. “Aren’t you coming?” Guard asked.
She looked up. “Inside?”
“Yes, of course inside. Unless Dach wishes to meet elsewhere—“
“No, no,” Dach interjected. “You must come inside. I have something I must show you.”
“But you are to discuss urgent business,” Leslie said, her tone neutral. Guard had gotten much better at paying attention to the tell-tale signs that gave away an individual’s context—their emotional state, their point of view, their underlying agenda. But Leslie was tough to read. Was she wanting to come in but did not out of propriety? Or was she saying she just didn’t want to get involved any more than she already was? Or something else entirely? Well, if the former, it was foolishness that Guard didn’t plan to put up with unless under obligation to do so, and if the latter, then she needed to speak plainly and make her preference known in no uncertain terms. “I am in your service. I await your call.” She paused as Guard looked back expectantly. “I respect your position and wait outside for you,” she said after a moment, her tone still neutral. “You have urgent business to discuss.”
Guard frowned, and turned to Dach, whose finger was to his ear, his eyes down as if he were busy listening to something important, from somewhere else. “Do you have any objection if Leslie attends our discussion?” Guard asked. “In full participation?”
Guard thought, at the very edge of his vision, he saw one of Leslie’s dark black eyebrows arch.
“What?” Dach asked, re-focusing his attention on Guard. “Leslie? Of course, she is most welcome.” Dach looked straight at her. “She always has been. Unfortunately, not every one the Elder or the Highest Council has sent to me, with her great and powerful assistance, has always been as unimpressed with their own self-importance as our good man Guard is. Yes, Leslie, come in, come in. You may trust that Guard will not get started on our important business until you do.”
Guard thought he saw a light pursing of her lips. Maybe a tiny nod of the head. But nothing else. “It is your wish I attend?” Leslie asked, tone still as neutral as could be.
“Yes,” Guard affirmed. “Can we please get going?”
“As you wish, sir,” Leslie bowed her head and began up the stairs behind him.
“Come on, come on,” Guard paused on the stairs, pushing her gently in front of him, between himself and Dach. “You don’t need to trail behind me or keep quiet or keep your head down. I understand it’s traditional but—look, I just can’t work that way. I have more than enough of protocol dealing with the rest of the world, I cannot endure it from the people who are supposed to be helping me. And you’re, like, a year older than me. I’m not a ‘sir’. All right?”
Leslie nodded slightly, not dropping her head, as they stepped across the threshold into Dach’s castle. “Okay.”
“Okay, then,” Guard said, frowning slightly. There was something peculiarly unsatisfying about Leslie’s responses. But what he would rather her have done, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps not bowing her head or calling him “sir” in the first place. Good grief, she was almost nineteen. He was just barely seventeen. Beyond that, the entire process of human protocol had always bothered him. The implicit and explicit hierarchies in every relationship, the appropriate and traditional manners of engagement, the inherently submissive roles that people who should have been operating as equals often had to play. There hadn’t been much of that nonsense with the Sister’s or on the farm. Only with the Tutor Imperial had he really encountered the procedures and behaviors that designated class and caste, that demonstrated the recipient or exhibitors current understood rung on the hierarchical ladder. There had been so much of that, with little evidence that it had practical value that Guard could see. But, he had sworn an oath to protect and honor Thorn and its citizens, and he would. He had obligations that he had to honor, like them or not—and usually, it was not—because of his oath and his love of Thorn. But if he did have some authority, and he apparently did, he was not going to put up with those around him behaving as if he wanted or expected a lackey. A lapdog. A cringing servant girl. He hadn’t had much patience for it before, and he had grown much older than just the passing of time in the past six months.
“This way, this way,” Dach was saying, touching his finger to his ear and motioning them down the spectacular main hall, so tall it must’ve reached the very canopy of the castle, so long it must have run end to end, with walls made of living trees, each tree flat up against the next. The floor appeared to be made of a thousand tree stumps, all pressed tightly together, with black pine tar poured in the small gaps that did appear and cured to a glossy hardness. “Turn here,” he said, turning suddenly into the right wall. Two ironwood trees separated at the last moment, allowing Dach to pass through into darkness. “Come now,” he said. “Before they close.”
Leslie had already followed Dach. Guard stumbled after them, almost getting clipped by the ironwood trees as they slammed back together. Although still clearly made of live trees, and smelling strongly of cedar, this hall was dark, barely lit every fifteen hands or so by a sap-caked diehard candle. Here the floor was rougher, too, like walking on bark, and the walls not just clean rows of tree trunks but branches and roots and bumps. And the floor seemed dirtier. After the fourth candle, Guard realized they were descending, going down underneath Dach’s castle, a place Guard had never even heard of anybody else going. All he knew of it was that that was where Dach, it was said, crafted his most potent and terrible magic.
“I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely right,” Dach said as the walls got closer and became less like branches and more like roots—all roots and dirt. “When I first saw you after you had retrieved the ogre drums, you told me of your experience with the trolls. Your conclusions were right, of course, but I dismissed your more dire concerns, given what I know—what has been true of elfin culture in the past. What would be true of it now, I think, if darker forces weren’t at work.”
The candles had seemed to stop. It was pitch black. But not entirely quiet. The floor seemed to be . . . moving. Guard absently let his had touch the wall, which now seemed mostly hard packed dirt, and he felt something like a snake wriggling across his hand. “Gods!” he cursed.
“Just the roots. My tree roots. The roots of the castle. They are—they are very active at the deepest level. Down here. For many reasons. But not to worry, not to worry,” Dach said quickly. “They won’t ensnare you and suffocate you and then crush you until your bones all break and your blood soaks the ground. Not while I’m with you. Heh. But I wouldn’t come here by yourself. If I were you. This way.”
Guard followed Dach’s footsteps into the darkness. Then bumped his head in the dirt. Gritty tendrils of tree roots slithered across his face. “Gods!” Guard exclaimed again.
“Sorry, sorry, please remember to duck,” Dach instructed. “There is no danger of the roots entering your head through your nose and ears and shooting through your brain while your in my presence. But do stay close.”
Guard felt Leslie’s hand take his, and her other hand push his head down—way down. It wasn’t ducking so much as it was crawling. How in the Hells had she not hit her head?
After what seemed like a solid minute of crawling through fairly unpleasant smelling, wriggling, slithering dirt, he felt the dirt floor give way to a hard smooth surface, like poured slag. Waving his hand over his head, he quickly established that he could now stand up safely as there was a flicker in the darkness. Then a brilliant light filled the cavernous underground chamber—two huge, burning balls, like miniature suns, hung twenty hands above them, as Dach dropped his arms. Apparently, there was no native form of light in the chamber—it depended entirely on Dach’s ability to conjure. Once Guard’s eyes adjusted to the sudden illumination, he could see the chamber was filled with the stuff of Dach’s magic. Rows of thick, oaken bookshelves, sagging under the enormous weight of the many ponderous volumes they contained, took up half the north side of the chamber. Tables with vials and flasks and glasses, some full and some not, took up the rest and intruded towards the middle. Chests and trunks took up much of the lower half of the eastern wall, and a large silvered mirror took up most of the top, its thick, rounded black frame so random and organic that it must have been naturally grown—no doubt one of the many creations of the late Sorcerer Parn from which Dach, and all of Thorn therefore, still benefited. A small greenhouse, and a large number of plants, filled up much of the west wall. Also, a number of cages, many of them containing odd creatures—Guard thought he saw a large black spider the size of his fist in one cage. In another, he spied a condor. He thought he saw a cat, and also a mongoose. In a large cage that was pulled out and in the center, there was a large black lump towards the back of the cage.
“Sit, sit,” Dach said, pulling out two thin chairs woven, it appeared, from reeds and leaves. As Leslie and Guard sat, Dach sat in his own, only slightly more substantial chair at the end of the table. “As I was saying, when you first told me that the Tarm Elves had sold magic to the trolls that might make it possible for them to organize a daylight attack, I thought it—well, I thought it wouldn’t happen. That the elves would be too smart and too careful. Too concerned with sentients. But I’m afraid darker forces may be at work.”
“Are you saying,” Guard asked, still brushing dirt from his tunic, “that there is no failsafe in the magic the Tarm Elves made for the troll—the magic that keeps the trolls from turning into stone? That they can attack us or others without—without it turning off?”
“I think so, yes, now I do.”
“Think that the Elves crafted the magic to be conditional—or not?”
“Well—not, I’m afraid. I wish it wasn’t the case but I think it is only conditional in respect to elves. That is, should the trolls attack the elves, then and probably only then would they lose the magic that protects them from the sun. There are indications that, in fact, the trolls have conducted test runs, as preparation for battle. Mirror, show the horse from this morning.”
Obediently, the mirror on the wall clouded over and then cleared, showing what looked to be the carcass of a horse, splayed out on the ground and burned to char. Dach pointed absently at the mirror. “See these pits at her chest and through her head? Hotrock. Hotrock, burned straight through.” The images on the mirror rolled upwards. “See those burn marks on the ground, and the tiny lumps in them? Hotrock, again, not quite spent. Still smoldering with heat. Thank you, that will be enough,” he finished, and the mirror cleared, returning to reflection. Although disturbed by what he had seen, Guard still couldn’t help but notice how useful Dach’s mirror was. And the fact that the good sorcerer did not have to present his requests in rhyme.
“A rural farm has also been attacked. About thirty fieldlengths or so from the White Sisters—the Noke Hollis farmstead. You know them?”
Guard blinked. He did—he knew of them, anyway. He had occasionally seen them briefly on social occasions. They had been a family of rural farmers, more rural than the sisters, and all brown-skinned and kinky-haired like Guard. It had, in fact, been the eldest boy, Charper Hollis, who had made Guard first long to take the simplest solution with his hair, which he had never been all that fond of, and shave it down to the scalp, and keep it shaved. He had always been hesitant to do it—working long hours in the noon day sun with a bald scalp didn’t seem like the smartest move. Charper’s often scorched pate, even though he used the latest lotion or salve, had suggested to Guard that, like it or not, he might want to keep his tangled hair until such time as he didn’t spend quite so many hours out working in the midday sun. After taking up his new diplomatic responsibilities for Thorn village, and moving out of the Sister’s farmhouse and into the Cornfairy, he had thought that life had brought him enough major changes, without also going topless, as it were. But after bringing back the ogre drums from the troll demesnes, Guard had noted he had both lost more than a few full patches of hair and that what was there was something of a mess. So, he had finally started shaving his scalp bald. And every time he did—almost every time he ran his hand over his head—he thought of Charper Hollis.
Guard nodded. “They were attacked? By trolls?”
“There isn’t much doubt,” Dach said. “The farm burned. The stables burned. The fields burned. Jennham of Thorn finally stopped the fire, and nearly drained the Hollis lake in doing so. Little doubt it was hotrock. I found a hollowed-tree not a fieldlength from the Hollis farm. It led to a troll passage. Which, so you know, I conjured a trap for, so be cautious should you be out that way.”
Guard nodded. “What about the Hollis family—Ghame and Lillia and Popkin and Charper—did they—“
Dach sighed. “They are all dead, Guard. They were burned alive. I believe the trolls took much of their livestock and perhaps some farm tools and canned goods. Otherwise, they burned everything.”
Guard shook his head slowly. “And we are sure it was the trolls?”
“There is no doubt,” Dach answered. “Mirror, show me the Hollis farmstead.”
The large organic mirror on the wall behind Dach rippled, and then the image of the smoldering ruins of the Hollis farmstead came into focus. Guard could see nothing but the stubs of beams where their farmhouse and stables had been. The fields had all been razed, even the old trees burned to char. “Mirror. Show us . . . “ Dach trailed off, gesturing at the mirror, as it zoomed into the blackness. After a moment, it stopped and Guard saw a body, blackened and almost unrecognizable, but so large it must have been Mother Hollis. Guard was suddenly glad he had already thrown up outside. Laying right beside the large, burned body Guard thought must’ve been Mother Hollis, there was a much shorter, much more compact body with long, drawn-back ears and a broad, ovoid head. It was blackened with soot, but it was recognizably a troll. A troll with Mother Hollis’s big butcher knife inserted, practically up to the hilt, through its left eye. “Go on.” Dach motioned at the mirror, and the image moved up—and there was the body of another troll, a carving knife in one eye and what might have been an ice pick inserted up its nose. Then the mirror moved, and then still another troll, its head clearly split open, whatever had been inside black and charred.
“What—how in the name of the heavens did she—did Mother Hollis do that? Did they? The hide of a troll is well-nigh invulnerable. I can almost see Mother Hollis dispatching a dozen trolls—”
There was a faint, sad smile on Dach’s lips. “Actually, they managed to take out forty-eight trolls, Guard. It was something of a rout. Of course, it would have been less, but you remember when Parudah gave Mother Hollis the stone cleaver—the stone splitter with blade made from dogsword—that she kept in the kitchen for cutting meat?”
Guard smiled. Indeed he did. Once he had been at their house for dinner, and she had been slicing up a ham hock she was going to fry and had gotten distracted, complaining about Charper and Popkin, and had cut through the ham hock, the butcher block, and counter. So that was how she had split the troll’s head. Good for her.
“I don’t think they would have taken out forty-eight trolls without the stone cleaver—perhaps the trolls should have picked their test run more carefully. But they would taken out many of them. There were a dozen in back with shafts in their eyes and noses—Charper, who was quite the marksman as I recall. One had a pair of sewing needles up its nose.” Dach shook his head ruefully. “I’m afraid if they thought they had easy marks, taking on farm folk, they were mistaken. Mirror, I wish to see no more.” Dach sighed heavily. “If this were all there was to it, though, I would be less concerned. In any case, the trolls have signed their own death warrants. I count the Night Troll’s minions at a little under eighty-thousand. Perhaps hundred score are actually fighters. I could’ve put an end to half of them myself. The right band of irregulars from Thorn could kill them all, and take not one casualty.”
Guard nodded. “So, what do we do?”
Dach sighed. “The troll issue is being addressed. I arrived at the Hollis farm shortly after Jennham had gotten the blaze under control. I found the tree-tunnel and I went troll hunting. I caught three, and it didn’t take much to get them to tell me what they knew. The one that I thought was the smartest, I kept with me. The other two I delivered to Parudah and the White Sisters.”
Guard blinked. “The White Sisters? What can they do?”
“Whatever can be done, can be undone. Whatever magic the elves crafted for the trolls can be unmade. Both Parudah and the White Sisters have the necessary experience with crafting magic to have a good chance at it. And the Sisters are very, very old. There isn’t much they haven’t seen. They seemed quite pleased, actually.”
No doubt. Guard could see them clapping their wrinkled hands together. A troll, Salara would say. How lovely! And Salana would concur: Oh, yes, just lovely! Do you think he will look better out front, or in the garden?
“But the larger question, Guard, is why? Why would the Tarm Elves cooperate with the trolls? Craft them such deadly and dangerous magic? Particularly considering they would know the source would be revealed? Why are the trolls so confident about marching into what will be a slaughter? Make no mistake, without pre-emptive measures they could do us terrible harm. But, in the end, the result would inevitably be their annihilation. As well with the elves, should they choose to align themselves against Man—and I find it hard to believe that every fen in dominions has gone the way of the Tarm. And as I search for answers, Guard—I find my way darkened. I find obstacles in my path. As if I could see the truth, if not for the smoke in my eyes.”
Guard shifted uncomfortably. “The dragon. The wyverns. When they attacked Thorn—“
Dach looked apprehensively at Guard. That was trouble. Dach was never supposed to look apprehensive. “Suicide, again. If you hadn’t killed the dragon, it might have done much more damage, but it would have fallen. Villagers and farm-folk beat back the wyverns. And as I’m sure you know, the dragon stood nothing to gain from the attack. Nothing.”
“It thought—it thought we had raided its nest. Stolen its eggs. Me, in particular. It told me. She told me. Told me that she had smelled me. Smelled my scent at her nest. That I had broken her eggs.”
Dach inhaled deeply through his nose. “Doesn’t make sense, does it? Except—after the trolls, I had a thought.”
“What?” Leslie interjected. Guard had almost forgotten she was there. When he turned to look at her, he saw she had grown paler, her eyes larger and bright. “What is it?”
Dach stood up. “Come with me,” he said. “I think you’ll need to see for yourself.”
Exchanging a brief glance—at the very least, Leslie seemed more engaged now—they both stood up and followed Dach past the tables and bookshelves into the darkness at the very back of the chamber where, as Dach vanished into the darkness Guard heard him mutter something, and abruptly they were all bathed in a white-blue light, like moon glow. Guard could see that they were standing at a great stone door, a man-and-a-half tall and twice as wide again, with only a small opening at eye-level, crisscrossed with thick iron bars. Guard wondered what the Sorcerer Dach could keep in such a place, or what he could have to show them that would have to be locked behind such a terrible door. Almost at the back of such a large chamber, already well-protected from intruders by the very roots of his wooded castle. At what must have been a hundred hands below the surface.
Dach whispered, and the light grew brighter. It emanated from a rough piece of glassrock embedded in the end of the long black staff the good Sorcerer now held in his hand. Of course—Dach was a staffwielder, a rare ability for even as powerful a sorcerer as Dach. As his magic was that of conjuration, it made him a double-threat. His staff was only in his hand when he needed it, and always when he needed it—it could not be taken. Nor did he ever need to reveal the ability, until the last moment—at which point it was always too late for anyone or anything that stood in opposition. Was the staff, Guard wondered, just the key to the door—a door so large and ponderous perhaps even the Elder could not open it? Or did he bring his staff to him for some other purpose?
Guard marveled as Dach held the staff out to great stone door and it began its slow swing inward, the light growing brighter and seeming to hum with the effort. The deep rumble of stone against stone reverberated in Guard’s very bones. And it seemed terribly dark on the other side. Then, the door was open, and the three stepped through. As Leslie and Guard followed behind Dach, who, once inside, took off at a rapid clip, Guard could hear, and feel, the door closing behind them. He found himself very glad that Leslie was with him. Her talent would be a lot more useful than his, if something were to happen.
What? What could happen? Why was he thinking like that? He had been through way too much lately. Entirely too much.
But something could happen, he thought. Something was happening. Something bad enough to worry the Sorcerer Dach.
“You remember about six moons ago?” Dach asked. “When Gretchen reported to the council that she had been accosted by a demon, in the form of a black serpent, near Dreamer’s Cliff?”
Guard nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I think so.”
“A demon tried to tempt her to eat a ‘forbidden’ fruit,” Leslie said. “The proverbial ‘black apple’ of Scripture. The real point being, of course, to use her own doubts against her, so that she might be tricked into making a deal with a demon. Then her soul would be forfeit.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” Dach said, continuing to hurry down the dark, damp stone hall. Even this hall, disconcertingly, seemed to be descending. How far down were they going? Guard also couldn’t help but notice the occasional door they passed, with small windows with big iron bars, each with three locks—at the top, bottom, and the side. This was a dungeon. Guard had never known that Dach had a dungeon. Thankfully, most of the cells were empty. But he couldn’t help but feel a little worried. “Come on, keep up, you don’t want to be stuck back there in the dark.”
“So, what about the demon?” Guard asked. “Is there something more there? Do you think these circumstances are—well, demoniac?”
“We’ll get to that. Although, I would like to catch that demon. Which I believe I can do, with your and Leslie’s assistance.”
Guard blinked. “Catch a demon?”
“Yes,” Dach reiterated. “Oh, wait one moment.” He pulled up in front of one large wooden door and, with the barest twitch of his staff, the three locks snapped open, and the door swung forward. “The troll I kept is in here. Come in.”
Guard stepped through the door, not without some trepidation. But there was little to fear. The room was cut in half by iron bars that separated the troll from Guard, Leslie and Dach. What was more, he could almost feel the magic humming in the bars. He knew they would be far too dangerous to touch. Most notably, however, was the troll, whimpering and cowering in the corner, black sticky smudges that looked like pine tar on his head, shoulders, and around his wrists. The troll looked briefly at Dach, and then collapsed into a quivering, gray, stony ball.
Dach held out his staff and the troll swiveled around with a snap. It let out a little yelp of surprise. Then, with little more than a twitch of his staff, the troll was jerked into a standing position, its long, wart-covered gray lips grimacing I pain. “I done told you everything you gloggin’ son of a nymph-kisser—“
Dach turned his staff ever so slightly, and it looked to Guard as if the troll’s left hand spun around 180°. It screamed in pain, black, viscid tears dripping from its eyes. “Glog, that hurt, I done told you everything—“
“I suggest that you watch your mouth around my friends. You can hurt a lot worse.” As if to illustrate the point, he flicked his staff, and the troll was thrown bodily, with a great, deep thud, against the dungeon wall.
Guard looked on, wide-eyed. He spared a fleeting glance at Leslie and saw that she, too, was gazing at Dach with amazement. They had both, over the years, seen Dach do some truly incredible things. But they had never seen him be so hard. They had never seen him be almost . . . cruel. Of course, the trolls had taken part in the murder of the Hollis family and the burning of their farm. Such offenses left little room for sympathy for those who would commit them.
“Whose idea was the attack on the farm?” Dach asked. “Whose idea was it to murder humans and horses?” He flicked his staff slightly. “Tell me now.”
Gooey black tears were oozing from its eyes. “Arrgghg, Gods, I don’t know, I don’t know, I already told you, I just got my orders.”
“And you got your orders from?”
“Fregrur Wahmbal. Captain Whambal.” The troll wheezed. “Oh, Gods, it hurts, make it stop.”
“And who did your captain report to?”
“I dunno. Somebody. Arrrrghghghg! I mean, somebody like General Toespit. And he talked to the Troll King, so I guess it was his idea. So stop, ya gloggin’ dog-sniffer!”
Dach turned his staff slightly, and the troll began to twist, his top rotating rightwards and his bottom turning left. “Oh that hurts that hurts worse—“
“Then answer me this question,” Dach said, approaching the bars, the edge of menace—beyond anything Guard had ever heard in Dach’s voice before—unmistakable and razor sharp. “Do you have any doubt that I could kill you now?”
“No! I don’t! But don’t do it! I can do stuff. I can garden—I’m good at digging! Aaahhhhrrgggh! You’re gonna break my back!”
“Well, then, you had better answer quick, hadn’t you? Do you have any doubt that I could kill a hundred of you? A thousand of you? Before I even began to sweat?”
“No, no, I bet you could, I think you could, I—ahhhrgghgh—I’m sure of it, sure of it!”
“And do you know that I am but one human in Thorn? That there are thousands that live there? That there are a hundred thousand more humans in the dominions than trolls?”
“We just learn how to—gack!—dig. Work stone. They don’t gloggin’ teach us nothing else! Arrgggh!”
“Do you not see that it is suicide? That your leaders—your king—doom you all to certain death? Why would you take on such a suicide mission? You couldn’t even take a simple farm house without losing forty-eight trolls. To a rural family with very minor magic. I found your tunnel. I walked right in. Was it difficult for me to catch you and your friends, do you think?”
The troll was quivering. “Uh . . . no?” it asked uncertainly. “Is that—gug, ulg, erg—is that the right answer?”
Dach’s eyes seemed to burn behind his spectacles as the light of his staff flared, and the troll let out a bellowing scream. “The right answer is the one that tells me why your kind would cause so much pointless death. If we cannot break the magic that makes you Titan trolls immune to sunlight, we will have to fight and kill you. All of you. It will be a battle the trolls cannot even hope to win.”
“I don’t guh-guh-guh-know, I duh-guh-duh-don’t know,” the troll was blubbering. “I’m just tuh-tuh-told to take orders and they told me to take the hotrock and throw it and that’s what I did they said we’d guh-guh-get nice farms and horses and puh-pigs to eat like you people and we’d be the kings and have the castles that tuh-tuh-touched the sky but I just wanted to do what I was tuh-told and get home and eat muh-muh-my slop and get to bed—“ And then the troll wailed. It was a terrible sound, sticky, gooey tears leaking from it’s coal black eyes. “I’m suh-suh-sorry, I’m sorry—”
“You should be,” Dach said quietly, a brought his staff to his side. The troll fell heavily onto the earthen floor, weeping.
Guard blinked. He had never seen a troll look quite so pathetic. Or Dach be so hard on any living creature.
“Good Sorcerer,” Leslie said, touching Dach’s robe. Her own eyes round and bright. And not a little pained. “I understand the importance of the interrogation. And the evil the trolls have done. Do you think there is anything else he can tell us now?”
“No. Not now,” Dach said, turning. He touched his finger to his ear. “You are right, of course,” he said, nodding to her. “There has been enough suffering.”
Leslie bowed her head. “Then you know I would ask you to ease this creature’s pain for the time being. Or put him out of his misery.”
“Ease the pain!” the troll croaked from the floor. “Ease the pain!”
Dach gestured towards the cage, and with a crackle, two lifegems appeared, one beside each of the trolls grimy, bloody hands. “Stupid girl, didn’t need your help, don’t need your stupid stones,” the troll grumbled, wrapping his hands around each rock.
“It’s a compliment,” Guard murmured, standing between Leslie and Dach. ”It’s as close to ‘thank you’ as it is possible for most trolls to get.”
“Yes, yes, I remember that to be true,” Dach murmured, wiping his brow. “Come on. The troll is not my only prisoner. And I’m afraid the second one is much more important.”
Three doors down, the doors became larger, double doors, and the doors themselves were more ornate. Dach waved his staff absently in front of the first door, and it opened. Guard noticed that, as the door opened, this cell was lit from the inside, with a shimmering white light. Dach stepped in, beckoning Leslie and Guard to follow. They did, and both stopped abruptly as they saw Dach’s other prisoner. It was the first time that either of them had actually seen an air demon.
The room it was kept in was larger than the troll’s, but without a cage or bars of any sort. Instead, a pentagram, burning with white fire, was drawn large on the ceiling and floor, and the air demon was trapped in between, unable, it appeared, to escape. The thing itself was difficult to look at. It was a roiling, empty nothing, that was at once an undulating cloud of greasy black smoke and yet an absence. An empty, inky blackness that seemed to go on forever. Guard couldn’t help but think of it as a gash. A gaping wound torn through the very flesh of reality. It was at once as if there was almost nothing there, and yet still something terrible to gaze upon.
“Demon Azharkavsha, Demon of Sky and Darkness, I come again to ask you your purpose.”
An unpleasant sound issued from the boiling black smoke, as Guard saw, for the first time, two flames, suspended in the blackness, that might have served as the infernal creature’s eyes. The sound continued—a hissing, scraping sort of laugh. Then it spoke. “Iiishheeesh caammeee too seeee youuuussshhhh dddiiieeee, Daaaach. Yyyyoooouuu aand aaall yyyoooourrr fffrrieeeendss.”
It hurt to listen to its voice. It sounded, in some ways, almost human—like a person so old you could no longer tell if it was man or woman, hissing words out of a withered and desiccated throat. At the same time, it did not sound human at all. It was like a foul wind blowing over black, poisoned waters, each word drawn out and ugly, as if each thing it said was somehow torn on its way out.
“And how do you hope to see us die, Hellspawn?”
“Iiiinnn gggrreeeeaaaaatttt paaaaaaiinnnn, Ddddaaacchhh,” the demon hissed. The greasy, inky blackness undulated unpleasantly. Guard couldn’t help but think it was testing its boundaries. Waiting to, somehow, get out. “Aannnnndddd yyyoooouuuu ccaannnn cccommmeeee ssseeee mmmeeeeee iiiinnnn Hhhheeeelllllll.”
“If I did, it would be the last thing you ever saw, Demon,” Dach said. “But don’t expect you will ever find your way out of here. You will be in this cell long after I am dead and buried.”
For a moment, and it was terribly hard to tell for sure, the cloud seemed to waver. Almost as if it was uncertain. Almost as if it were scared of Dach’s threat.
“Sshhhttuuupppid mmmaaaaan,” the Demon began.
“Not just a man,” Dach said pointedly, the glassrock at the end of his staff glowing brightly. “As I think you already know.”
“Yyooouuu ddooo nnot sssscaaarrreeee meeee, sssttafffwweildeerrrr. Iiiii hhaavvveee ffffeeeassstteeed oonnn tthheee ffllesssshhh offff tthhoooossseee mmmuuuccchhhh mmmmooorrreeee ppppowwwwerrffuullll tttthhhaaaaaannnnn yyyyyooooouuuuu.”
Dach gazed steadily at the demon. “Perhaps I should introduce you to my friends. This is Leslie,” he said, gesturing towards her. “Perhaps you’d like me to put her in there with you?”
Guard couldn’t help the small smile that curled his lip as Leslie, so studiously unemotional so much of the time, jerked, looking at Dach with wide-eyed horror. He could almost feel the word No! struggling to burst forth from her lips.
“Iii wwooouulddd eeeaaattt hheeerr ccrruuunnnccchhheeee bbbbooonnnneeeessss,” the demon intoned gleefully. “Iiii’mmm nnoottt afraaaid offf aaa ttrraannsssppooorrtttterrr.”
Dach smiled. “She’s a very powerful one, Azharkavsha. In fact, I think she could take you into a church. Without crossing the threshold. So you could petition your grievances against us directly with the Gods, in Their house. Would—”
All of a sudden, the demon was writhing around, beating against the invisible force that contained it, a guttural howl filling the room. After it struck the pentagram on the ceiling, there was a cracking sound and a jet of black steam, like coal smoke shot from a bellows. For a moment the roiling black nothing burned with white fire. It seemed, to Guard, to be cooking in it. The scream—if that’s what the terrible metallic twisting sound was—was something awful to hear. Then, the white fire dissipated, and the inky blackness was back again in the middle, hovering between ceiling and floor, twisting slowly.
“Would you care to answer my questions now? What was your purpose? Why did you come to my castle?”
“Iiiii tttoolllddd yyooouuu—”
“Leslie?” Dach asked.
“My pleasure,” Leslie said, apparently understanding that Dach was almost certainly bluffing—if she did manage to get the demon into a church, the demon would be destroyed, forever, and there was also some ambiguity as to what position doing such a thing would leave Leslie’s own soul. She had to know, Guard thought, Dach would never seriously put her in such a position.
“Kkkkeeeepppp yyyooou buusssyyyyy,” the Demon said quickly. “Tttteeemmpppttt t yyyoooouuuuu. Dddiiiissstttrrraaaacctttt yyyyoooouuu ffrrrooommmm yyyyoooourrrr ssseeervvvviiiiccceeee tttoooo ttthhhheee ttteeerrrrriiibbbllle Gggoooooddddddsssss.”
“Ttoooooo ppputttt yyyooouuuurrr ssoooouulll iiinnn jjjeeaappoorrdddyyyy—”
“But why now?” Dach insisted. “Why now?”
“Wwwhhhhyyy nnnooootttt nnnooowwww?”
“Do not play games with me, Demon. Trolls are planning a suicidal attack against the surface, enabled by the magic of an elfin fen that has long been our ally, there is a plague on our land for the first time in a two centuries, there is news of famine and pestilence from Jarris, we were attacked by a dragon for the first time in a hundred turns, and there have been more demons on the surface in the last two seasons than I remember in my life. What darkness calls you?”
The black smoke swirled in silence.
“Is your kind at work in the minds of the trolls, in the hearts of the elves? Why would a dragon believe that my friend Guard had broken its eggs? Do you know, demon?”
“Guard,” Dach said. “Would you ask the demon to be more cooperative?”
“I—I don’t know that I can—” Guard started. “I mean to say, I’ve never tried to influence a demon before.”
“No time like the present. I have great confidence in your abilities. And it is important. Please, try.”
Guard closed his eyes, letting the magic build. Letting it pool around him. It seemed difficult to believe, but perhaps Dach was right. Both his experiences in pursuing the ogre drums, and even more so the events around Stephen’s disappearance and the attack of the dragon, had indicated that his power might be growing. And it had proved, so far, unusually versatile, applicable to almost any sentient creature—even some not-so-sentient creatures, as his encounter with the rotteral in Titan Woods had demonstrated. So, he would try.
“Iii’mmmm nnnoottt aaffffraaaiiiddd oooffff yoooouu, ppperrrssuuaader,” it hissed. Although it did sound a little afraid, to Guard. “Mmmyyy mmmiiinnnddd iisss nnoottt sssooffftt lllikkkeee mmmoorrrttaaalllls—”
Guard’s eyes snapped open, and he focused the full force of his magic, certainly as potent as he had ever felt it despite his physical exhaustion, at the air demon. “You would like to tell us all you know,” Guard said reasonably, and the demon seemed suddenly frozen. “Tell us everything. Answer every question. What could it hurt? We’re stupid humans, after all, and nothing we might do could, in the end, stop your infernal plans.” The black smoke was frozen as Guard talked, and he knew immediately that Dach had been right. The demon was susceptible to his power. Even as he thought it, he felt the magic swelling around him, almost effortlessly. Again, he focused the full force of it directly on the demon. “In fact, what a clever way to mislead us—to tell us the truth, so that we’d think it a lie. Yes, you are so clever demon. So you should tell us the truth. Answer our questions.” Again, the magic was pooling around him, as much as his will could focus on the demon. Even a week ago, he would have been depleted for six or perhaps eight hours after such effort. Yet now, unlike his emotional and physical reserves, the supply of energy, of magical force, that he could draw on seemed larger than he could even use. Since he had it, he let it fly, one more time. “And talk faster. Stop it with the hissing.”
Dach seemed to take Guard’s final exhortation as his cue, and stepped to the edge of the pentagram. “What do you know, demon? Why are you here?”
“Wwee arree ccallledd toooo ttaakke yyooouu out,” the demon almost whispered, its smoky form slowly beginning to curl and undulate again. “To occupy, ensnare, or destroy you.”
“Why me? What purpose does that serve?”
“I do not know the purpose, I do as I am told.”
“Told by who?” Dach asked.
“By The Father of Lies, the Destroyer of Truth, the Tempter of Men, the Reaper of Souls, the Heart of Hatred—”
“Satan,” Dach said.
“Our Dark Lord rules all,” the demon replied.
“Is there a force that calls you at this time—that calls you out?”
“We are called by those who wish to see Our Dark Lord return to reign over the ends of the world and the bowels of Hell. We are—” The demon stopped, and for a moment there was a bright orange lick of flame that seemed to bisect it, almost splitting it apart. “We are called to prepare the way—” There was a howling, metal-scraping sound as a bright, larger thread of red fire shot through the center of the roiling black cloud of smoke.
“A name, Hellspawn,” Dach said steadily, standing ever closer to the edge of the pentagrams, his face only a few hands from the demon. “What mortals would call you?”
“Su—” It started, and the stopped, the boiling black emptiness turning almost gray, the dark and greasy black again. “I cannot say. I must not say.”
Guard stepped forward, his own magic so large, so intense, it almost felt like heat against his skin. He knew, even as he focused his will on the Demon, that it had never been like this before. That there was a strength in his power at this moment he had never felt. “Demon, give us a name. What could we do with a name? How could we defeat your Dark Lord? No matter what? Give us a name.”
“Yes,” Dach said, leaning forward. “Tell us the names.”
“Susan,” the demon said, and a spiderweb of red flame spread across it, and it made the sound again—a scream of twisted metal. “Susan of Blackwood. The—”
“Susan?” Leslie asked. “What kind of name is that?”
Dach blinked. “Susan,” he said. “Susan of Blackwood. The Child Queen of the Third Dominion. The Dominion of Jarris. The beloved Child Queen of Jarris. The largest and most populous Dominion of all the four Dominions.”
The air demon seemed to fold over, perhaps nodding assent, perhaps in pain. “Thhheerrree isss annottheer,” it said, and his time the flame seemed to leap from its eyes, striking the invisible boundary created by the pentagrams and then shoot back directly at the demon, cutting directly through its center. “—I—another. There is.”
“Who, Hellspawn? Tell us.”
“Yes,” Guard insisted. “Tell us now.” He felt acutely aware that time might well be running out. He could see the lines of the pentagram, drawn in white flame, shifting and adjusting as if something else was working to break them.
“It is—he is—the Wizard. The Wizard of The Light. They call him—him—call him—call him war—“
Guard leaned forward, letting his own magic flow out of him. “Yes? Quickly. They call h—“
With a burst of black and red flame, and the sound of a scream, a terrible guttural scream like twisting metal and shooting fire, the air demon exploded.
Dach promptly fell back on his haunches, weakly shaking his head. “Susan of Blackwood. And another.”
“What happened?” Guard asked, as the last tendrils of white flame faded from where the pentagrams had been, the only light now coming from the end of Dach’s staff. “What happened to it?”
“A dark hand reached out,” Dach said. “To stop it from telling us more.”
Leslie sat down beside Dach. “I—I have never heard anything but good about the Child Queen of Jarris. I find it difficult to believe she would—that she is in league with—I mean to say, the demon could have been lying. Yes? Pretending to bend to Guard’s will?”
Guard bristled a little at Leslie’s easy dismissal of his clearly growing ability, but had had the same thought himself. His encounters with demons—at least, that he knew of—had been few indeed, and he had never tried to use his influence on such an infernal creature. It had seemed to respond to his power. But that could have been a ploy to further deceive them, right down to the demon’s apparent destruction.
“It is a possibility that must be considered,” Dach murmured. “Of course it is. But I doubt it is the case that it was a deception. I believe Guard compelled the demon to obey, and that the demon told us what it knew. This isn’t random—the demons are called. And they are invited into our realm by mortals.”
“But why?” Leslie asked. “Why would Susan of Blackwood do such a thing? Why make deals with demons if you are already so powerful—she is the one Child Queen—“
“Who is to say even that position did not come at a price?” Dach put his head in his hands. “The demon was silenced before us, by a great dark hand with the power to reach through the magic that imprisoned the Hellspawn. That was no small thing you saw. It was a great and terrible thing. What would be worth such an effort to the Father of Lies?”
“It cannot be,” Leslie said.
“Prophecy,” Guard said. “The End Times. The rise of the Dark Wizard.”
“He—it said—a Wizard of Light—“ Leslie started.
“The Wizard of the Light,” Dach corrected. “Yes, it did, but prophecy is never straightforward. If it were, it wouldn’t be prophecy. We are always meant to doubt until the time that prophecy is fulfilled. There have been no end to doomsayers who have cried that the end was nigh over the past thousand turns. Over the past three thousand turns, since the scriptures of the Final Prophecy were written. Thus far, it has never turned out to be the case. I pray it is not the case now. But the seeds of destruction are being sewn. By the spawn of Hell. And the Wizard of Light—that’s straight out of the Final Prophecy, given by Rolthar-Bodam, the last apostle of Michael, the Son. The Wizard of Light—according to prophecy, his way through the People of the Gods is ploughed with blood and bone by the King of the Demons.”
Leslie blinked, shaking her head. And then she quoted Scripture: “’With the heart of dragon, the blood of goats and sheep and men in his veins, his flesh from spit and dirt, the King of Demons becomes ruler of men, and will make endless war—’”
“’—in the everlasting night,’” Guard finished.
Dach was nodding. “And though the faithful to the Gods may rise up and destroy the King of Demons, the Wizard of the Light may still be victorious. But if the King of Demons is not defeated, the Wizard of the Light will visit every plague upon man, burn all magic from the world, and Satan will rule for an epoch.”
“And if the Dark Wizard wins,” Guard said. “All of those ‘first born-male, fair of skin and hair, shall put yoke and chain to all brown and red and tan, all elf and troll and nymph and gnome—‘“
“And it will be the man’s evil heart, the fallen and sinful nature of our spirit and our flesh, that brings down ten-thousand turns of darkness.”
“I never liked that part of the Scriptures,” Leslie said plainly.
Dach laughed a little, shaking his head ruefully. “Nobody in their right mind would. It’s paints a dark and terrible picture, one which would make us pray that either this is a much more metaphorical prophecy than some, that it is not entirely accurate—as even the final prophet did say near his death that the Scriptures are not inerrant—“
“—But are always holy and always in the service of the Gods,” Leslie interjected.
“Yes, yes,” Dach consented, a small smile on his face. “I would never question the holiness of the Sacred Texts. But we could hold out hope that the last prophecy was more of a rant than an inspired vision. Or that the Final Prophecy was especially metaphorical, or that there are other options not touched on by prophecy, a superior outcome that the Gods have put it upon us to discover. There is certainly precedent for that, with prophecies from the Ancient Testaments.”
“I—“ Guard started, not exactly sure what to say. He wasn’t comfortable with expressing doubt in what Dach said, especially after seeing how Dach had handled the troll earlier on, but felt he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t make his doubts and questions known. “Where is the King of Demons, then? The demon didn’t say anything about the King of Demons—and the King of Demons is supposed to be a mortal. A ‘man, covered in ichor, bird-serpent, servant only to Satan—‘”
“I think you glean my concern. All the original scriptures are written in the Old Language, and, as part of my training, I’ve read them all—three times, actually, in Old Language. Some things, the prophecies in particular, can come across extremely different. ‘The King of Demons’ is a single world in Old Language—and yes, ‘The King of Demons’ is one way to think of it, but a more likely meaning, given the root and modifier, is ‘Bitter Angel of Darkness’, and even ‘King of Demons’, as it would be in the Old Language, might more appropriately be expressed ‘The Ruler of Evil Children’. So it could be Susan of Blackwood. It doesn’t have to be a reference to a man at all.”
Guard shook his head. “People have predicted the Final Prophecy for ages, and it was always upon us, and yet it never came. I—I’m not quite ready to tie two clapboards to my body and wander from village to village proclaiming that the End Times are upon us.”
“Guard,” Dach said patiently. “I know what it is I say. I know how it sounds. This does not go beyond this room. Do you both swear?”
“I swear in secrecy,” Leslie and Guard both said, almost simultaneously, raising their hands towards Dach. A white crackle signifying a faithful oath made in truth briefly lit the air, and then vanished.
“Good, good. Because there is nothing to say now. Nothing to say. I know next to nothing of Susan of Blackwood, and certainly can’t trust a demon, no matter how far-reaching the scope of Guard’s power.”
“Uh, I don’t know that my magic is all that far reaching,” Guard said quickly. “I would—I suggest we would think about it—investigate—“
“I agree. I will bring this issue before the Elder, as a concern that she was named by the demon, and that I believe the influence upon the elves of the Tarm and perhaps even the trolls of Titan Woods has been demonic. Nothing more. I will not allude to prophecy. As you say, we don’t have much to go on, although history certainly does not record this much demonic activity, especially with what appears to be much larger, more coordinated intentions than the temptation of a single soul, one at a time. Additionally, the prophecy begins with the simultaneous rise of the Wizard of Dark and the Wizard of Light, and there have been no Wizards in this world for a thousand years. And the first sign given in the prophecy is the rise of two wizards, one of the dark, one of the light: ‘By this you will know that the last prophecy has come to be fulfilled.’
“But a terrible darkness is growing in our lands. Whether it is prophecy or the relationship to prophecy is, in itself, an intentional distraction, there is evil at work. And we must work to stop it. Because whether it is prophecy or not will make precious little difference if we allow evil to subdue us. The Gods are always there, but they do not schedule every event, every outcome, every conflict. Should we fail in the tasks set before us, the Time of the Final Prophecy could come a thousand years hence . . . and find us already enslaved, the land already submerged in darkness.”
“What do you think we should do, Dach?” Guard asked.
“Fulfill your current obligation to engage the Tarm Fen.” Dach shuddered, holding his staff across his chest. “I will prepare for battle, if necessary. I’d rather take on ten-thousand trolls with a million bushel-baskets of hotrocks, but I don’t think diplomacy will solve Thorn’s trouble with the Tarm Fen, this time. Liege and Chieftain Jackdaw will not respond well to your inquiries, and I expect your presence in general will be unwelcome, after you told the Night Troll that you were an emissary from the Tarm. I have several words of power and protection, and a few Old Language incantations, which I think you are now up to using—and which may serve you well, with the Tarm. I suggest Leslie accompany you, as a quick escape may be your best defense.”
“It would be my honor to serve Thorn,” Leslie said, not a little by rote.
“And what then? After I confront the Tarm and report back to the Elder, what should I do?”
“I think we should confer and prepare you for a longer trip. Unless I am mistaken, your next errand will be to Ashwan, the Jade City, the very center of Jarris. The home of the Child Queen of Jarris, Susan of Blackwood.”
Guard felt woozy. The very idea of such a long trip through such unfamiliar territory—to Jarris, an entirely different dominion, when he had yet to ever leave the admittedly spacious boundaries of Kloston—made him a little nauseous. He’d have to have his horse ready—unlikely, for a new mare—by the time he departed. He’d have to have significant food and medicine, far beyond a single lifegem and a flask of water and some ouncecakes. Tarm was maybe 20 fieldlengths beyond the outpost borders of Thorn—just the border that separated dominions, the River Poseidon, was easily 300 fieldlengths outside of Thorn, the Jade City probably another three-hundred fieldlengths inside the borders of Jarris, if not four-hundred. Good Gods, it was a trip for a convoy with supply lines, not one lone diplomat—Outside Ambassador or not. Just to survive would take some planning. Doing anything useful would be something else again.
“I fear much is at stake. Did the Elder tell you about Stothenby?”
Oh, good Gods. What else? “No, he told me nothing about Stothenby. I haven’t heard anything about or from Stothenby in—I don’t know, six moons at least.”
“Thirty-seven have died from two-day fever. Sixty-seven more have it an are well-nigh on death’s door. We believe it was a courier that stopped at Stephen’s and Sylvania’s before Leasia was quarantined for contagion. Those still alive are being treated similarly, as Stephen is making the rounds with the ogre drums, only stopping to aide in your recovery before going back—so far, it’s the only thing that stops the fever—”
“But Stephen had it,” Guard said. It was true, in the process of saving Leasia, they had apparently done something to the two-day fever virus, making it more resilient and much longer-lasting. But this was the first Guard had heard of people dying because of the mutation. “Stephen was the first one to catch it, after we healed Leasia. And he recovered—it took ten days or so, I know, but he recovered. And he had given it to a farmer in the outlands, and he recovered—”
Dach nodded. “And his wife died. It’s the women that are dying—much like Leasia almost died. Would have, if not for you. Sylvania might have been at risk, had she not had the two-day fever in her adolescence. Fortunately, it’s only spread to two women in Thorn, and both were saved. But Leasia remains contagious. As far as we can determine, nearly every woman who had not had two-day fever previously in Stothenby contracted the fever. Katie has said she can develop something, some sort of vaccination made from the dead virus, but she does not know how long it will take her. In the meantime, we seem to have been visited by a plague. Caused by healing Leasia of an infection that, to this day, nobody understands how she could have contracted, given her normal magical immunity to such things. The healing process that made it much more virulent and much more potentially deadly came from the ogre drums, that were, for some time, in the possession of trolls that had cut deals with elves that might be under the influence of darker forces. You see what I’m getting at.”
“I think,” Guard said. “It’s all too much to just be coincidence. That’s what your saying.”
“Yes. So I think we have much work ahead of us.” Dach sighed, standing up. “About time for me to get to work. With this new information, I have much to do. Additionally, I’m going to need both your and Leslie’s help. I want to catch a demon.”
“Our help?” Leslie asked, eyes wide. “Me? To catch a demon?”
“Yes. But later. First, Guard must attend to the Tarm. He and I will need time to prepare for the journey to Jarris; during that time, I hope to catch a demon, but I will need your help.”
Leslie nodded. Dach turned slightly, putting one finger to his ear. “Mmm,” he hummed. “Oh. Mmm. Not good.”
Guard leaned forward. What was Dach doing? Listening to his oft-referred to Oracle Ear? And what was it saying to him, Guard wondered.
“I’ve got a lot to do. We need to get moving. Thank you so much for your help and insight, Guard and Leslie. I wish I could say recent events were the end of it, but I’m afraid they are just the beginning.” Dach sighed. “Might I speak privately with you Guard, before we go? I have some spells and supplies for your journey to the Tarm.”
“As you wish,” Guard said, and Dach was up and off, gray and brown robes flowing behind him as he sailed out the door and into the hall.
“Come quickly,” Dach said, gesturing with his staff at the two massive oak doors, which began their ponderous journey towards closure before Dach was through the door. “Before the doors shut.”
Leslie and Guard followed rapidly. “Thirsty,” croaked the troll as they walked swiftly passed his cell. “Water. Help.”
“Dach—” Leslie and Guard started almost simultaneously.
“Of course,” Dach said without missing a beat, holding his left hand out towards the troll’s cell. There was a sudden loud splash.“That should be plenty of water for now,” Dach said.
“ . . . shatt’s more like it, human freaks,“ the troll said in a water-logged voice, then coughed.
“Doesn’t he need a cup or something?” Leslie asked, almost whispering.
“Trolls would probably prefer licking water up off the floor,” Guard told her. “The dirtier the better. They are odd creatures.”
When they were past Dach’s laboratory and safely out of the root-lined tunnels, back in the main hall of Dach’s castle, Dach motioned with one hand. A large, soft chair, upholstered in crushed blue velvet seemed to melt into existence. “Please have a seat and be comfortable, Leslie, this won’t take but a moment.”
“As you wish,” she said, nodding. Guard wasn’t sure how he felt about excluding Leslie from any of their discussion—good Gods, Dach wanted her to help him catch a demon in the not-too-distant future—but wasn’t going to argue the point. If there was something she ought to know, Guard would tell her.
Dach continued down the long hallway, motioning for Guard to follow. At the end, he opened a great redwood door and both entered. He closed the door, and then sat down at one end of a large, oval table, motioning for Guard to come sit beside him.
“Time is precious, so I’ll get to the point. You’ve never used a staff.”
“A staff? You mean a magic staff—like a staffwielder?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. You’ve never wielded a staff, in any form.”
Guard couldn’t help laughing. “Of course not! You’ve got to be a sorcerer to be a staffwielder, and precious few of them are staff—but you know that, I’m sorry, it’s just . . . I mean, me, a staffwielder! I know my magic seems to be increasing, but . . . a sorcerer? Me? That’s just nuts. You were conjuring entire houses out of thin air when you were, like, ten years old! Everybody has heard the stories. That’s how they knew you were a sorcerer. And your stone—the stonethrower stone. I’m—you’re joking with me, aren’t you?”
“Not at all. I just want to make sure. Here,” Dach said, a simple white staff fell from the air into Guard’s lap. “This is a testing staff. If you were a staffweilder, you’d have to travel to a town with a staff-maker. There aren’t many of those. But it is enough to see if you have the gift.”
Guard couldn’t help but shake his head at such foolishness. “Or that I don’t.”
“I’m afraid that’s less conclusive. Not everybody can do it early on—of those, admittedly, most staffwielders have their staffs by the time they are seventeen. But there are always exceptions.”
“Okay, okay,” Guard said, holding the staff forward. “What do I do?”
Dach gestured, and an apple appeared on the table. “Lift the apple. Into the air. Making it stay there. Just give it a try. Think about it happening. Will it to happen, as you do when you focus your magic.”
“Okay, whatever,” Guard said, and, holding the simple white staff out towards the table. He willed the apple to move. Nothing happened. He willed again. Still, nothing happened. “I don’t think—“
“Just try,” Dach urged. “One more time.”
“All right,” Guard consented. “One more time.” He held the staff out towards the apple, willing with all his might, and he felt a distinct shock in his hand, and then staff bent back, twisting his wrist and rapping him soundly on the head.
“Ouch!” Guard said, and then laughed. “I don’t think this is working.”
“All right,” Dach consented. “I just wanted to see.” He waved his hand, and the apple and staff both evaporated without a sound. “There are many things unique about you. My curiosity was not without legitimate reason. But, time is of the essence. Here is a list of words and spells—I suggest you memorize them tonight.” His hand raised, a scroll shimmered into his palm. He placed it on the table. “Here is a memorystone. And here is some callingwood. I’ve got a piece from this same tree, and you can give the other three to whoever you like, keeping one for yourself. Do you know how to use callingwood?”
Guard nodded. He did. How you used it was sparingly, because it did not last for long.
“Good,” Dach said. “My understanding is that Sylvania has elixir prepared for you. You already have chainmail to wear under you tunic, correct? Don’t forget it on this trip. And if you see the White Sisters before you go, you might check on how they are doing in defeating the elfin magic that lets the trolls roam around in the daylight. And see if they can give you something to assist in the abolition of demons. Should you be bothered.”
Dach pursed his lips. He sat there in silence for a full twenty ticks before he finally spoke. “Guard. I have little doubt that you influenced the demon. It was not misleading us, or pretending—you commanded it.”
“I—” Guard stuttered. “I just don’t know.”
“But I do. Your power is growing. I could tell—you kept applying your magic to the demon. Almost as if your energy was unlimited. Almost without pause. That sort of robustness—that’s new for you.”
Guard nodded. “New as of today. I mean, I know my magic has been maturing. But it has never been like that.”
Dach nodded thoughtfully. “And your power may have further to grow, yet.” He stood up. “We will test you on the staff again. Some other day. But now, I know you must be on your way to prepare for tomorrow’s confrontation with the Tarm Elves. And I have much work to do, myself.” Dach waved one hand, and a large book appeared on the table, an oil lamp beside it. “I bid you farewell,” Dach said, the door to the room opening. “May the Gods speed your journey,” he finished, as Guard sat up and stepped out.
“And may the Gods bless yours,” he concurred.
Dach was already opening the book he had conjured, nodding absently at Guard’s words, as the door shut with a loud thump.
Guard walked the distance between himself and Leslie, who stood up, the blue velvet chair vanishing as she did so, as he approached.
“Are you ready to go?” she asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be. Can you drop me by Sylvania’s? I can just walk back to the Cornfairy from there.”
“If that’s what you want,” Leslie said. “Or I can wait for you.”
“No, that’ll be fine. If you can just get me to Sylvania’s cottage, that will be plenty for today.”
Guard turned around, facing away from Leslie, putting his back to her. “Let’s get this over with.” He chuckled humorlessly. “I hope I don’t get the dry heaves.”
“Um,” Leslie started. Then she sighed. “Guard, there is an easier way.”
Guard looked at her, cocking an eyebrow. “Easier way? What easier way?”
“I—I don’t start with the easier way until I feel somebody has demonstrated they merit the attempt. And even then, I have to get something straight.”
Guard nodded, turning back around, not sure what he had done to “merit the attempt”, but also not planning to look a gift horse in the mouth. A form of transport that was easier on his stomach and head would be most welcome. “All right.”
Leslie took a deep breath. “Here it is. I’m not attracted to you. I don’t want to get to know you any better. I don’t want to have dinner with you or come over to your room. Just because—just because the process is a little more intimate, this way, it’s not an invitation for your hands or eyes to wander. Especially your hands.”
Guard nodded his head. “I didn’t think you liked me. I mean, I wouldn’t presume. And you’re very nice, but I’m not interested in anything but doing my job.”
Leslie blinked. “Well. Good. I just want to be completely clear,” she said, taking a small piece of twine out of one pocket and wrapping it around her long, black hair, and then flipping her hair over it, pulling it up in an informal bun, away from her neck. As she did so, she turned around. “All right,” she sighed heavily, as if she was already regretting the decision. “You come up behind me.” She pointed to the center of her back. “Put your hand through here—there’s a small hole. Bring your hand through here and go around—wait, roll back your sleeves as far you can. Do it for both your arms, your sleeves need to be up for both arms. Now, bring your left hand in and around against my stomach. Keep in mind that the idea is for as much skin contact as possible.”
“Okay,” Guard said. He understood why Leslie had made such a point of clarifying her lack of attraction to him. His arm was now around a lot more soft, warm, naked female flesh than he was used to. Than it had ever been, except for the time he had helped rescue Leasia from the highwaymen. Additionally, the rest of his body was pressed against hers, and he could smell her hair and skin, and even after a day of difficult work, she smelled very good. And it was—stimulating. It was no lie: he had no interest in her, other than getting the job at hand done. But he was a young man, and his body was reacting despite his wishes to the contrary. He hoped this would be over soon.
“All right,” she said, loosening her robes at her neck then pulling it down around her right shoulder. “Put your right hand around my stone—my necklace. Hold it tightly. Keeping your hand around the stone, trying and keep your arm up as high as you can without separating from my skin.”
“Okay. Now, as I begin to speak and you feel my skin get hot, put your mouth on the back of my neck—open mouth, teeth and tongue, is the best way–”
“Oh,” Guard said. He was already feeling too aroused as it was. This was too intimate, for him, as it was. “Oh, no, I can’t. I—I mean, I’m sorry. That’s not something I can do.”
Leslie shrugged. “It’s up to you. It would make the trip easier for you. I’m going to be, as a practical matter, almost licking your arm. It’s a hazard of the job for me. Perhaps you could just press your lips against my neck or my shoulder. Nothing inappropriate. Understanding, of course, that it’s not a come-on or an invitation to fondle anything. That would be a good way to lose a foot. Or the back of your head.”
“I understand,” Guard said, wishing he had an alternate—but equally swift—mode of transport. But there was none.
“Okay. Up against me. Closer. Spread the fingers of the hand on my stomach. Push just a little more firmly. Hold tight to my stone. Don’t choke me, though. Then, just put your lips against my neck. Nothing fancy.”
Guard did as he was told, pressing his lips to her bare shoulder as her head bowed, and she pressed her own lips to his forearm. Then, her mouth moving, she started saying words. Words that sounded like the Old Language, but words he could not understand. Her body grew hot quickly, as her mouth, now burning like fire, opened, her tongue touching the skin of his arm like a blazing flame. And to his horror, as he was pressed so tightly against her, he found himself so aroused physically that he knew she was sure to notice. Even with the burning, prickly heat of his skin, he felt the blood rushing to his cheeks, in profound embarrassment. She shifted her backside against him, obviously noticing the sudden change, but did not pull away. But he did feel her teeth biting into his arm, with the heat of a branding iron. Scorching pain bloomed in his arm—it felt like his forearm had been run-through with a sword of molten steel, but if anything it only made his arousal worse. And as the pain seemed almost unbearable, she pushed him back gently, and he stumbled on the dry, dusty street, but neither fell or vomited. He rubbed his eyes, looking at the small cottage in front of him. Sylvania and Stephen’s cottage. She had taken him directly there. And this time, the sensation of having all the food in his stomach squeezed out by a giant hand was absent. He felt mildly nauseous, but it wasn’t bad. Leslie had certainly been right about this being the easier way to go. Still, he couldn’t help but feel ashamed for the physical reaction he had had to simply being in such close proximity to her. Especially after all she had said.
He turned to face her. She returned his gaze evenly, expressionless. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean—I wasn’t thinking—I should have—” He stopped. “I have no designs on you. But perhaps we should do it the first way we did it, next time. I’m—I’m afraid it appears I can’t quite trust my own body.”
“It’s all right,” Leslie said neutrally. “That is not the first time. It won’t be the last. As long as you understand, it ends there.”
“I understand,” Guard said, nodding, keeping his own head down in shame. “Thank you for your help today. If it suits you, I’d like you to meet me at the farm of the White Sisters before noon tomorrow.”
“You are sure you have no further need of me tonight?” Leslie asked, pulling the twine from her hair and then pushing her long, black locks away from her face. She was disheveled and clearly exhausted, but in last light of the setting sun, she was strikingly beautiful. Given the nature of her magic and her statuesque features, no wonder she had had trouble with the men she was assigned assist.
“We are both tired. I think it’s time we both rest. I suspect I will have need of you, and tomorrow will be very busy.”
“Good night, then,” she said, then turned and walked away. Guard suspected that, after a day of transporting him back and forth, she was happy to just walk back her house. As all who had had their stones thrown knew, one’s magic could often be more of a burden than a blessing.
Sighing, he turned to the small oaken door of Stephen and Sylvania’s small cottage.