In which desperate afflictions require desperate
Kai's appearance, so close to death, supplied the jolt that galvanized the wizard into action. He hastily delved into his robes, and delved deep. From within, he pulled some dried leaves, a small earthenware pot and several wafers. The last ingredient to appear was an egg-shaped piece of clear blood-red amber. In its centre was a small dark object.
At his command, Ewan fetched the brazier and set it beside Kai's bed. The wizard then handed him the leaves with the instructions to crumble them on to the coals. A sharp sweet aroma pervaded the room as Valarien slipped one of the wafers into Kai's mouth.
Next, the wizard cupped the amber egg in his hands. He paused, looking at it warily, and licked his lips which had suddenly become very dry. Ewan and Leon looked on uneasily, Leon especially. Valarien took a deep breath and began an incantation in chilling guttural tones.
The small dark shape within the amber began to move. It wriggled and writhed, growing all the time until it filled the confines of the egg. A resounding crack echoed round the chamber. The amber shell shattered, throwing out a cloud of minute rubescent particles that shimmered in the early morning sunlight. In the wizard's hands, there rested a small pulsating lump of livid flesh, covered with shiny mucous.
Leon and Ewan watched in fascinated revulsion as it slowly grew. A head and body became distinguishable. The body sprouted six vestigial limbs equipped with bristly feet like a fly. The head, which was nearly as big as the body, seemed to be mostly mouth. It had bulging bulbous eyes covered by a silvery grey membrane which suggested that it must be blind.
As it grew bigger, the watchers became aware of its harsh rasping breaths. When it had achieved the size of a rat, Valarien carried it over to Kai and laid the hideous creature upon his bare chest. Using its stunted legs, it hauled itself across Kai's body to the seat of his injury. There it raised its head and opened its mouth, displaying two enormous needle-sharp fangs.
Leon cried out in horror as it plunged them into Kai's flesh. Had Ewan not restrained him, he would have tried to knock the fiendish thing away. A nauseating stench of rottenness cut through the fragrance from the brazier as putrid matter - greyish yellow and flecked with black strands - oozed out around the creature's fangs.
Greedily, it began to feed on Kai's swollen belly, slurping away with great relish. The barbarian had turned a sickly shade of green by this time. He had seen many gruesome things in his time - even been responsible for some of them - but this was too much. He ran to the window and heaved.
Having parted company with the contents of his stomach, he remained by the window and tried to shut his ears to the disgusting slavering noises emanating from the creature whatever it was. He didn't care to think too much about that, either.
Wizard and nightranger alike experienced a degree of queasiness, watching the thing at work. As it sucked, its small body became bloated, its skin stretched and translucent so they could see its contents seething within. On the other hand, Kai was looking markedly healthier. The swelling had gone down and the bruising had faded considerably. A faint tinge of colour was returning to his face, too.
Sated at last, the Thing withdrew its teeth and rolled off Kai on to the bed. It was now the size of a large cat - and its eyes had opened. It looked wholly evil as it glared malevolently at the wizard.
"What in hell is it?" Ewan asked, horrified.
"Well, you're on the - um - right lines," Valarien replied with a grim smile. "It is a potorpuris . . . from the - um - fourth hell."
Valarien nodded, taking a piece of chalk and four yellow candles from his robes.
"Is that safe?"
"No but it was the - um - only thing I had capable of saving Kai. Keep an eye on it for me. It should - um - behave itself, but if it doesn't, just tell me. Above all, don't - um - touch it."
Ewan needed no second telling about that. Valarien crumbled another handful of leaves on the brazier then drew two concentric circles on the floor. Within the smaller circle, he drew a pentagram of banishment, and within that, a single sigil. Between the two circles he inscribed a series of arcane glyphs, with small pentagrams at the points of the compass. The candles, he set inside these pentagrams, and lit them by dint of touching a finger to the wick.
That done, the wizard very gingerly picked up the little demon, which hissed and spat its fury, and set it down in the central pentagram. Taking up an imposing stance, he spread his arms and intoned another incantation.
There was a sharp hissing sound that culminated in a loud pop. The demon disappeared leaving only a wisp of blue smoke and a patch of slime on the floor. Valarien breathed a deep sigh of relief and returned to Kai. He broke the seal on the earthenware jar and smeared a liberal amount of the unguent it contained around the puncture wounds, ensuring that the holes were well filled with the healing balm. Finally, he slipped another wafer into Kai's mouth.
"Now," he announced, "I need a bath. I must wash away the - um - taint of that foul creature."
Kai recovered with remarkable rapidity. This was a good thing for Valarien, who had became very unpopular with the dwarves after the remains of Tabor and Junak had been discovered. They had no knowledge of what exactly had taken place, but an educated guess laid the blame at the wizard's door, despite his former friendship with Junak.
On the other hand, Kai had risen to high esteem among the dwarves for his part in the recovery of the fortress. They therefore paid him attention as he made representations on behalf of his companion.
Valarien, he said, had been acting under the spell of the sorceress. Bending the truth to breaking point, he led the dwarves to believe that the wizard's manifest grief was caused by his discovery that his had been the hand that had slain his dear friend. Thus, he contrived to gain a measure of reluctant sympathy for the elf.
Naturally, he said nothing of this in Valarien's hearing. Equally naturally, the dwarves forbore to seek confirmation of the wizard, who had sunk into a mood of profound melancholy.
This depression robbed him of much of his awesomeness in Leon's eyes, and the barbarian became more comfortable in his presence. Valarien, for his part, accepted Leon's addition to their party without demur. He showed little interest in anything, in fact.
The dwarves had soon restored the Eyrie to its former state and cleared out the debris left by the Saghan' îl in the delvings. Valarien's standing improved considerably in his own right when the dwarves ventured out into the southern plains.
There, they found the charred remains of a large number of the Saghan' îl who had been caught out in the open when the wizard had unleashed his firestorm. These had been following the troop that had included Ewan. If the arrival of the first contingent had caused an unpleasant set-back for the dwarves, this second - and much larger group - could well have turned the tide completely.
With a little more truth bending, Kai managed to convince the dwarves that this was a deliberate act on the part of Valarien to make amends for his earlier error. Gratitude was now added to the unwilling sympathy.
"And may the gods forgive me this deception," said Kai to himself, seeing the fruits of his successful subterfuge.
He had been up to the Tower of Guard to sit awhile beside the bier of Istvan. The urn that contained his spirit had been retrieved and now stood beside him. Sadly, none had the knowledge to unite the two, and until such a one was found, the dwarves had vowed to maintain a constant vigil. Kai was grieved to see this once mighty man thus laid low - poised between the living and the dead, yet belonging to neither.
Time came to leave the dwarves. Kai had tried to draw the wizard on the subject of his plans for Gyldenburg, but met a brick wall. He supposed that Valarien would recover the normal tone of his mind, given time. It was only ten days, after all, since his inamorata had perished. Well, Kai knew well enough where they were going. Clearly, it behoved him to take command of the party until Valarien began to take an interest in life again.
Ewan already felt himself committed to The Cause, having effectively been recruited by the wizard several weeks earlier. Leon, having no other plans in mind, was happy to join the elite force in place of the unfortunate Junak. As they packed up their belongings ready to leave, Kai sketched out a rough itinerary for the benefit of the rest.
"As you know, we're bound for Gyldenburg, across the Halcyon Ocean. The shortest crossing point is the Strait of Tonnan Vora between Barrachira and Ancalla."
"A bit breezy around there, I seem to remember," observed Leon.
"It can be," Kai conceded, "but I reckon we'll arrive around the solstice, so it shouldn't pose any problems then."
"And the currents can be a tricky, too . . . "
"Well, if it worries you, you can find us a nice steady craft and a nice safe crew."
"Hell, no. The rougher the better for me," the barbarian declared, his eyes alight.
"The sea or the sailors?" enquired Ewan with a dead-pan face.
Kai laughed as Leon threw a playful punch at the mocker.
"I propose to take the route south of the Kadina Bassa. It's not far out of our way and it takes us through Laurenna. Valarien's planning on bringing Scipius Magnus and "
"Scipius is dead," put in the wizard in leaden tones. "Junak's dead, Peri's . . . dead. They're all dead, every one. Death walks at my side. Oh, I must be cursed indeed."
He sat down and put his head in his hands. Kai and Ewan exchanged speaking glances over his head.
"Scipius isn't dead," Ewan said laconically.
The wizard's head came up sharply. "Not?"
Perceiving that more was required of him, the nightranger continued.
"Followed your tracks - took me to Laurenna. Had quite a long chat with Scipius." Kai raised an eyebrow at that. "It was touch and go for a while, but he'll pull through."
The flicker of interest, though clearly mixed with relief, died swiftly, and Valarien lapsed into lethargy again. Kai regarded him with some solicitude. It was as if he were looking at his own self, not so long ago in Claresso, when he had first teamed up with the wizard. Of course, there had been no lady in case there, but though he could not fully comprehend his companion's feelings, he could sympathize.
Sadique and Leon's horse had been brought through the Sularin pass, and the dwarves had provided a mount for Valarien, plus another for baggage, and enough supplies to take them as far as Laurenna. Unfortunately, even the largest pony the dwarves could find was somewhat shorter than Dapple, and the wizard looked even more comical. No one laughed, however, despite an almost overwhelming urge to do so.
Their departure jerked Valarien back into the real world again, as they rode into the plain. He became suddenly aware of the devastation around the Eyrie, stretching for some quarter of a mile all around. There was a layer of yellowish dust scattered over the charnel plain. Distorted blackened hummocks marked where the dead had fallen. Even the vultures had fought shy of tidying up the remains. Valarien stared at it in disbelief.
"Did I do that?" he asked, almost inaudibly.
He looked thoughtful, and now, it was an alert thoughtfulness. He was debating with himself whether to return to the Eyrie for the Grimoire, or whether perhaps, in view of the great damage it could cause, it should be left well alone. He decided on the latter.
Leon was contemplating the power that could be generated by love, and concluded that it was awesome. He also decided that despite a number of amatory adventures, he had clearly never actually loved any of those delightful females. Ah, well, it was probably safer that way.
The journey back to Laurenna was uneventful and as swift as the ponies would allow. No one wanted to dally in the lands that had been ravaged by the Saghan' îl. Valarien, in particular, was prey to a tumult of conflicting emotions. He recalled, painfully, the journey he'd made in the opposite direction. He reviewed with loathing the deeds of the Saghan' îl, and he regarded their leader with contempt.
And yet he had actually fallen in love with one of them. Still loved her. Would always love her. He blamed himself, too. Valarien the Mage, Master of Knowledge, who could - if he had not been so wrapped up in his own happiness - have looked around at what was going on in the world outside.
He had failed to do so - had failed his beloved - and she paid for it with her life. And then . . . he had destroyed his friend. Junak, too, had paid with his life. The price of failure was immeasurable. And he still lived, despite his best efforts to do otherwise. Fate had intervened. Fate? Or . . . ?
He remembered with great wistfulness the dream he had dreamed. It was a living dream that had not seemed like a dream at all. There, he had walked with Peri in paradise. To his great relief she had been all right. Her death had been the dream - the nightmare. Really, she was well - and happy . . . His heart had sung with joy.
Then he had awoken and found everything was upside down. Dream became reality became nightmare, and his world had crashed down around him all over again. He had been given one ray of hope, however. Arien Seren herself had appeared to him with Peri.
Oh, he knew not what to think! Dreams - visions - where did truth belong? If Peri were dwelling in paradise with the Goddess, was he, perhaps, being selfish in wanting her alive?
He cursed Fate for keeping them apart. What had sent Kai and Ewan bursting into her chamber at that precise moment? And why had they dragged him back? Couldn't they see what he intended - what he wanted beyond all else?
One evening, as they sat around a small campfire, just inside the Volasnian border, Valarien tentatively broached the subject with Kai. He had been staring into the flames for sometime, pondering anew on the capricious nature of Fate. Suddenly, it seemed important to him to know how and why Fate had intervened so officiously.
" - Um - Kai," he began, "why did you come when you did?"
Kai looked blank.
"When you - um - fetched me back . . . "
"Oh." Kai thought about it. "I don't know. I just felt you were in danger. Something seemed to be telling me you needed help."
"Something?" Valarien prompted urgently.
He looked keenly into the warrior's eyes as if searching his soul for the memory. Kai looked away, discomfited, and went on a little sheepishly.
"Well, if you must It was . . . like a voice . . . calling me from far away, yet right beside my ear. I thought I was imagining it, but I couldn't ignore it."
Valarien stared wistfully into the flames. "I wish you had," he murmured dejectedly.
"If he had, he'd be dead by now," Ewan remarked bluntly.
Valarien looked much struck by this observation. The nightranger had gone straight to the heart of the matter, as was his wont, and the wizard pondered anew the machinations of Fate.