(Good News and Bad News)
“You know him best,” said Helmut. “Would he defect?”
“Oh please!” Juliex whirled on Helmut. “These are the most trusted of my men. They are my brothers.”
The big man grimaced. “Sorry. Didn’t mean nothing by it. I just…”
Arnaald stepped forward and put a hand on Helmut’s forearm. “It’s alright. We’re all a bit wound up by these latest events.” He paused and shook his head. “Such happenings… they’re unfortunate in any time, but now, they must be heeded as warnings, possibly even omens. Tonight I have to find a place to settle in and do some scrying. I need a broader view. We all do.” Smuntley was a little dubious. Even after all the miracles he’d seen in this wondrous land, his scientific/analytical mind was sending up warnings of superstition and he made a mental note that, because of the evidence to the contrary, he really should be more open and trusting.
Suddenly, Dolf called from away down the hill. “Here. I’ve found something.”
Juliex and Skell were first on the scene followed closely by the others, Smuntley and the wizard bringing up the rear. Dolf was on one knee pointing with his dagger. “See here. These are Stern’s tracks. He was walking his quadrant as a good guard should.” Juliex gave Helmut a meaningful look. Dolf continued. “He was walking east to west. Here his tracks end. And this…” He lifted a few dried pine needles glued together with a single sticky glob of coagulating blood. He looked meaningfully at Juliex and said, “Sorry.” Juliex looked away in the direction that the fading tracks led. Dolf continued., “This doesn’t solve or prove shyte. Fact is, I’m boggled. Where’d he go? Where are the tracks of whatever attacked him? Drag signs…there’s nothing. What the hel happened here?”
The wizard leaned heavily on his staff and looked long at Smuntley who returned a questioning look and finally, “What?”
Juliex was incredulous. “Oh come on. You’re telling me a friend I’ve known most of my life was taken by something out of fairy stories to frighten naughty children?”
Smuntley interjected, “Where I come from, goblins, dragons and even, beggin’ your pardon, wizards are exactly that, so you can imagine how I feel.”
Arnaald sighed deeply. “Fact is, it was information I received from the unbeliever here…” indicating Smuntley, “that alerted me to their possible presence.” He explained to the group what had driven Smuntley south to Fjellhiem and away from his home. Smuntley confirmed any questions from them and Arnaald continued. “Certain of their number can levitate. It depends on the power of the one who raised them and that person’s intentions. In this case, Doden. I daresay we discount nothing where that one is concerned. Levitation would account for Stern’s apparent vanishing into thin air.” He gave Juliex and the other Drakedahlers a sorrowful look. Juliex groaned and turned away. Garr put a comforting hand on his shoulder while Arnaald turned back to the others and continued.
“It’s only a theory at best for now. It’s why I must use my crystals tonight and seek answers. We’ll need to camp somewhere that I can find the privacy and tranquility to do so, yet you fellows will be able to keep watch. I will be vulnerable while in trance. Not helpless mind you, but the lion’s share of my concentration will be elsewhere.”
Juliex turned back and said, “Any hope for Stern?”
Arnaald frowned, “Lad, there is always hope, but given the evidence, I won’t hold any out. Sorry.” Juliex nodded and walked back toward camp. To the rest of the group Arnaald said, “We waste time. Come, let us away.”
Within twenty minutes they were once again on the trail, making do with cold breakfast in the saddle. Juliex ate nothing and thought of his missing friends.
Despite the day’s outset, the remainder of the time was uneventful and they did, in fact, make good time and covered a lot of ground. Upon topping one of the higher ridges they were afforded a view to the northwest where a distant plume of dark gray smoke rose high into the pink-hued sunset. They needed to search for a campsite and they were running low on water so Briar suggested they look for someplace with a spring or pond.
Smuntley shook his head. “Nope, I’d suggest we begin to avoid any standing water sources from here on in.” He opened his canteen and took a sip then pointed, indicating the source of the distant plume. “The whole place is volcanic. Best to get our water from rills, streams, rivers and such. Fast moving sources.” Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he capped the canteen and hung it on the saddle horn and realized that the whole troupe was awaiting further explanation. “Arsenic,” he said smiling. Still not receiving any indication of enlightenment, he went on. “Volcanic areas are notorious for high levels of a heavy metal called arsenic. It’s highly toxic. Poisonous really. Standing water such as lakes, ponds, even springs can be loaded with the stuff so it’s best to get your water from a fast-moving source. Oh, I mean the occasional swig of such water should be safe enough but prolonged exposure to it, even through the skin, could have irreversibly devastating effects. I daresay there are plenty of mountain rills and other sources of running water in these parts. Shouldn’t be a problem, really.”
Anaald turned in his saddle (which he’d begun using strictly for the utility as Torfax needed no such contrivances to be ridden). “Ha! My, but you are a veritable font of information. While I am no mean scholar, myself, I wonder at all the information I’ve missed.” Smuntley smiled and tipped his pith helmet.
“Actually, I have had some exposure to this lore, though I never recognized it for what it was,” said Briar. “Algar frequently comes up here for his spiritual sabbaticals and has often mentioned that he drinks only from running water. I’d always attributed it to a preference of personal taste or perhaps a facet of the religious rite.” Here he looked at Smuntley directly. “How far afield must we exercise such caution?”
“From what I’ve ascertained from the maps, the whole of the southern part of the range, clear across to the southern end of the Daggernasties, is all part of the same volcanic system, albeit from what I can tell, most of it is dormant.”
“What does it look like, this arsenic?” Asked the mage
“It’s a type of crystal, actually. It’s…um,” he looked about him and grinned. There, in a rocky outcropping just to his left was an area that might very well have been what he was trying to explain. He held up a finger, dismounted, retrieved his rock hammer from his saddlebags, walked to the outcropping and gave it a good whack. A flatish slice calved nicely revealing what he sought.
He picked it up and pointed out the gray colored crystalline material glimmering in the limited light of dusk. He held it up for all to see saying, “There you go.”
“Well, I guess it’s a good thing this area is largely unpopulated,” said Garr. “What are the symptoms of this…‘arsenic’ poisoning?”
Smuntley dropped the rock, dusted off his hands, remounted and thought for a moment. “Depending on the amounts ingested and, by the way, the type and strength of the arsenic, they could range from nervous tics, nausea, diarrhea and indigestion, or migraines all the way to dementia, extreme insanity and incoherence and finally, death.”
“Tykk let out a guffaw. “Dementia and insanity, eh? That would sure account for our old friend Blothe, wouldn’t it now?” He turned his horse down the trail and said, “It ain’t gittin’ any earlier, fellas.”
Arnaald and Briar looked at each other with mirrored astonished expressions of enlightenment. Krawnholde occupied one of the lowest elevations of this area.
The expedition was fortunate in finding running water very near an extremely defensible position. There was a waterfall in a grotto emptying out onto a small grassy field. They set up camp quickly, ate and Arnaald prepared for his trance of scrying.
Arnaald found an area behind the waterfall that could not have been more accommodating given the circumstances. It was a shallow cave and there was dried driftwood, brush and leaves littering the floor from some time in the past when the water level was higher. He started a small fire, opened his leather valise and retrieved his crystals. One was a perfect globe the size of a grapefruit. The other two were quartz in their natural state, one four inches, the other, six inches long. He drank the contents of a small phial, stripped to the waist and began to chant…
“Lo, gjør det jeg ser min mor …
Lo, gjør det jeg ser min far …
Lo, gjør det jeg ser mine brødre og mine søstre
Lo, gjør det jeg ser en linje av mitt folk …
Tilbake til begynnelsen.
Lo, kaller de meg.
De byr meg ta min plass blant dem.
Innenfor haller Valhalla …
Hvor modige kan leve …
Which, while there is no literal translation from the old tongue, loosely translates as:
“Lo, there do I see my mother…
Lo, there do I see my father…
Lo, there do I see my brothers and my sisters
Lo, there do I see the line of my people…
Back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them.
Within the halls of Valhalla…
Where the brave may live…
The ancient mage chanted this over and over and finally the elixir began to work its magic. He stared into his crystals until his eyes went dry and still did not break contact, but focused with pinpoint precision. Suddenly he was high above the Voldsom mountain range. He could taste the moon and starlight and he beckoned to the wind, “Show me…bring me…”
He floated to a ridge high above the grotto where the expedition was currently camped and there he spied what he sought. Startled by the vision of thirteen draugs and as many ormhests and the realization that they were only miles away, he hurriedly cast a spell of hiding over the camp. This, he knew, would be a precaution he would need to exercise henceforth.
He had to be very careful for he knew that one misstep on the ethereal thread he now clung to and he could lose his body forever. A bit too much energy, one way or the other and he would betray his presence to the thirteen or at least to their leader. He sensed this one was much more attuned to the astral workings than the others. He had, in life, been a powerful mage. Arnaald knew that now. He searched for an identity…a name, and then, Inzveer.
A shudder that wracked his very soul threatened to be his undoing. He fought for control. He had known this being in their youth. They’d played together, hunted and done their studies together, became mages together. Arnaald’s soul wept and his astral body shivered. There was so much emotion that he wanted with all his being to be away before he betrayed his presence. He calmed himself with extraordinary strength of will. He still needed to learn the fate of Stern. He touched the mind of one of the other draugs, very lightly at first. This one was certainly no mage, but the evil there was exhausting. From this being he learned that poor stern had been tortured for information about Garr. When he was abducted, they’d hoped that he was Garr. Then their mission would be complete. It was soon evident that this person was not that whom they sought so they tortured him mercilessly. The valiant Stern gave up no information and died slowly and agonizingly from his wounds, flayed alive. The poor lad suffered the final indignity of being fed to the ormhests.
As unpleasant as this experience had been, Arnaald had gained valuable information. Until now, the hypothesis that it was Garr that Doden was searching for was just that, a hypothesis. Now the mage was certain, and that also convinced him that Garr’s place in this unfolding tale was a very important one indeed.
With this information secured, Arnaald fled what had been an altogether nasty experience. He was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to be back in his body and sleep. However, he’d been thinking of Skruff and was more than a little concerned that there had been no word from him for months and all day he’d been planning to include a search for him.
He could sense the nissa but he found it hard to believe that he would be as far away as his senses told him he was. He decided to use his astral voice to communicate.
The nissa answered the call in quick order. What the mage learned astounded him. The little fellow had certainly been busy. That the nissa was so inventive didn’t surprise him, but all that he’d been able to accomplish and that he’d been able to raise and train an ‘army’ was nothing short of miraculous. He shuddered at the mental image of Skruff’s ‘poop and pee’ pollution plans, but the concept was a sterling one. Suddenly he thought of Smuntley’s ‘arsenic’ and he told Skruff what it did and projected an image of the crystalline ore. He was encouraged at Skruff’s response that the area was loaded with it. The trulls would be receiving a toxic mineral regimen very shortly. He was also surprised and amused that it was not he, but the nissa that had broken off contact. He’d said all he was going to say and Arnaald had been summarily dismissed.
Back in his cave behind the waterfall, Arnaald came out of his trance. He smiled and shook his head. He also decided that when he broke the bad news to the Drakedahlers, he would omit certain specifics. He rose and walked to the falls and let the water run over his head. He donned his robe, packed up his crystals and exited the cave. The group had been anxiously awaiting his news and all but the sentries strode forward expectantly.
“Well,” said the mage. “I have good news and bad news.”