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Winter's Tale

The gang plank bouncing under his weight, Winter barely set foot on the stone dock, before throwing down his saddle and his bags. He glanced around, and seeing the watchful eye of the dockmaster, went back up the gang plank for his horse.

His horse was stubborn, and took considerable grunting and fighting to pull across the deck, and then down the gang plank. The animal was huge, causing the stout wood to bend alarmingly. Gremlin's hooves hit the dock's cobblestones with equine relief, and stopped fighting his owner. His dappled gray and white hide glistened in the weak sunlight, as the horse flicked his ears up and down the docks.

The dock master eyed the newcomer with respect, as he watched the unloading of the recently arrived ship. The newcomer handled his horse well, even though the horse was obviously stubborn. The man was tall and broad of shoulder, and the bastard sword strapped to his back indicated a warrior or mercenary of some sort. The newcomer's hair was white as snow, though his face was that of a younger man, perhaps of twenty-eight. His beard and pony-tail were well groomed, and his sharp eyes seemed to miss little.

Winter nodded to the dock master as he approached, just as the ship's stableman brought down a fine black gelding with a pack saddle.

The older, reedy man said, “Fine animals. Well, I'm the dock master. Name's Olden. And you are?”

The larger man said, “I go by 'Winter'. It suits me.”

Olden nodded. “Fair enough. They're expecting you, Winter. Do you need a hand?”

Winter shook his head, throwing the last of his bags across the black horse, and securing its reins to the pommel of Gremlin's saddle. “No, thank you. Lead on.”

The dock master nodded his balding head in acknowledgment, and moved back down the dock. Behind him, Winter strode with a confident, almost swagger-like walk. The horses' hooves echoed dully amidst the crash of waves on the shore, the call of the sea gulls overhead, and the activity on the docks.

Once off the docks, the dock master stepped into a small building with several desks. Olden went to one in particular, apparently his own, and pulled some parchments from a drawer. “These are yours, Winter. This one here will get you into the city without a need to bother customs. This one will get you through the guards at Thayer's Rock. And this one will get you to The Man.”

Winter arched one white eyebrow on his tanned face. “ 'The Man'? Mister Mhenace?”

Olden smiled. “Yes, Mister Mhenace. He so hates that name, we've all gotten into the habit of calling him anything but his real name. Welcome to Teras, by the by.”

The larger man nodded, and said, “Thank you.”

The dock master asked, “Do you mind if I ask you just what you were hired to do, to have all these forms readied for you?” Olden handed all three forms to Winter, who secured them in a weather-proofed scroll-case.

Winter smiled, and said, “I am a paladin of Whalin, in the rank of Protector. I'm not here for pay. I'm here to help.”

Olden nodded sadly. “The mages?”

The paladin nodded. “Yes. Which way is Thayer's Rock, from here?”

The dock master's smile returned, and he stepped outside, past the horses, to point into the city. “Go due west, until you're on the other side of the city. You'll see a road that parallels the beach; take it, West, for about five miles. You'll see Thayer's Rock. You can't miss it.”

Winter nodded his gratitude, and as he clasped the older man's wrist, he slipped him a silver piece. Olden's eyes lit up, and he bowed deeply to the paladin. The protector mounted up, and gently nudged his mount forward.

As he rode away into the throngs of late afternoon Teras, Winter turned around in the saddle to call to the older man, “May Whalin watch over you.”

Olden bowed once again, before moving back down his dock towards the ship Winter had arrived on.

Gremlin trembled beneath Winter's weight, unused to being ridden, or being on land, after so many days at sea. The long voyage had been hard on both the dappled gray and the black, spending so long under the deck, unmoving. Sensing the ease with which the animals were tiring, Winter paused, and dismounted.

Gently patting his mount's shoulder, he chuckled. “You should have said something, Gremlin.”

Gremlin nickered softly, butting the paladin in the chest.

Winter slipped the warhorse a dried date from his pocket, and then led Gremlin and the pack horse through the streets. As he walked, leading the animals, he looked around at the city, taking in its ambiance.

Teras was a new city, barely ten years old. Designed by dwarves and humans, it had a practicality and a simplicity that was functional, and pleasing to the eye. Native trees grew throughout the city, and fire walls existed between groups of buildings. The amount of stone used in the construction of the city seemed considerable, lending a grayness to the city that matched Gremlin's coat. A decade's worth of smoke was slowly graying the tops of the buildings, though fresh thatch or tiles coated many of them. Light wisps of smoke rose from a few chimneys, the season being early autumn.

The people were busy, some moving about in a hurry, others taking a measured pace with full wheel barrows or laden carts. Children ran and played in the clean-swept streets, as vendors calmly called their wares from street corners.

Winter stopped to buy a large, salted pretzel from one such vendor. As he slid the man the two coppers to pay for the hard snack, he said, “Good day to you.”

The pretzel vendor smiled, his great waxed mustache bouncing in his pudgy face. “Good day to you, as well, sir knight! What brings you from across the seas to the fair city of Teras?”

The protector smiled in return, and said, “I've come at the request of Thayer's Rock, and Rial Mhenace.”

The vendor's eyes lit up. “Then you've come at excellent request.” He sighed eloquently. “Would that mine own sons would be called to the Rock to work. Instead, the scally-wags want to follow their mother's ways, and fish.”

Winter chuckled, and nodded his head. “The ways of the young are strange even to themselves.”

There was an answering chuckle, before the vendor called, “Pretzels! Get your salted pretzels right here!”

Whalin's paladin took a bite of the pretzel, before sharing it with Gremlin. Winter passed homes and shops, and even one small temple to Mikindim, before he felt he had his land legs back. Even still, he tread cautiously, keeping a careful eye out about him.

Though the city's fascade was warm and peaceful, there was an underlying stone-hard quality about it. The men had the look about them of veteran soldiers. The women walked with the swagger of swordswomen. The children played at war. There were all races in Teras, and many who were not human. Dwarves of several different clans strode the streets, talking with humans and themselves. A few of the seven-foot desert elves walked together, trailing behind the four-foot lizard-men known as tomanths.

And beneath all their clothing, chain or studded leather glinted. Swords and axes bounced in their scabbards against thighs with each step. Winter himself was watched, people turning to see him walk past, leading his two animals.

These people are battle-hardened veterans, he thought to himself. He reviewed in his mind what little he knew of Teras, and the fledgling nation in which it resided.

Rakore had originally been just two clans of mountain dwarves, the Rakanus and Warkore clans. The Rakanus clan had supposedly been strong of priests and clerics, and the Warkore clan had been strong of warriors and rogues. For whatever reasons, the two clans had grown further and further apart, isolating themselves from the rest of the world – until the world came to them.

As Winter cleared the edge of the city, he found the road winding west, and continued his musings.

The orcs had invaded the peninsula of both clans from the east, storming in from the deserts in numbers that suggested starvation and desperation. The undead arose from the forests between the two clans mountain chains, attacking both clans with equanimity. The Rakanus clan held off the undead with relative ease, and the Warkore clan held off the orcs – but both clans were hard pressed by the other enemy, the one to which they were not suited. The undead decimated the Warkore warriors, and the orcs ran amuck through the Rakanus priests.

Chief Ulrich Graniteshoulders of the Warkore clan needed aid, and offered a truce to the Rakanus clan; an offer of friendship and teamwork. The truce was not enough, as the dwarves were out numbered, even combined of arms and armor. Then Ulrich did something uncharacteristically dwarven; he extended his truce to the humans of the valley between the clans.

Ulrich, Winter thought to himself, Was decidedly ahead of his time.

Chief Ulrich Grantieshoulders soon added the tomanths and the elves to the truce, enlisting their aid in the defense of the new nation, lead by a dwarf. The other races had no choice but to comply, for none were strong enough to withstand the sieges of undead and orcs on their own. Together, and with the aid of extraordinary leaders, Rakore was born, holding off both the orcs and the undead.

Several wagons laden with raw lumber, and other goods that had been aboard the vessel Winter sailed in on, made their way past the paladin, heading west on the road. The sun was perhaps half a mark to setting, and Winter nodded to himself.

Leaders such as the desert elf Malkir Vinaalaalus, and the dwarf Duke Orcbane, helped weld the small nation into a greater whole. The undead were finally wiped out, and the orcs were held at bay. At the behest of the head of the Rakanus clan, ArchBishop Bryan Stonegrudge, Chief Ulrich Graniteshoulders was proclaimed king of all Rakore. The new king had the nominal backing of all the races, provided that they were all allowed equal citizenship. Most surprising of all, Ulrich agreed.

The surf to Winter's left had gradually died away, as the muddy road wound a bit north, further into the forest. Of a sudden, Winter came around the bend, viewing Thayer's Rock.

The tide was out, but the deep harbor still held ships in it – some with masts taller than any others afloat. The many docks and dry docks were not the least to draw the eye. Thayer's Rock itself was a huge upthrust of black basalt some thirty-five feet high, and hundreds of feet wide. Neighboring Thayer's Rock were other, smaller outcroppings of black basalt. In addition, a lumber yard, several smithies, a tavern, stables, warehouses, and more made the Rock a small city in its own right.

The whole of Thayer's Rock seemed to relolve around the ship-building going on, as workers of all races moved to end the days work early. Many headed for what was obviously a tavern, from which the beautiful singing of a woman could be heard, and the discordant singing-along of rough sailors' voices.

Several people walked on by the paladin, heading east towards their homes in Teras. One stopped before the protector, and cleared his throat. Winter glanced down at the man, who came to the protector's shoulders.

“Pardon, milord,” he said with a deep, baritone voice. “Are you perchance the paladin they've called for?”

Winter blinked, and slowly nodded his head. “Yes, I am. How-”

The wide-shouldered worker shook his head, and said, “I know. I, too, follow Whalin. It's the way you walk, friend; it says that you carry other men's pain willingly.” He smiled up at the paladin, and clapped him on the shoulder. “See that main rock, there?” He pointed up to the part of Thayer's Rock that faced the ocean.

Winter nodded, and the stranger continued. “After you drop your horses off in the stables, there,” and he pointed. “Go up to the Rock, and begin asking around for Rial. One of the guards should take you to him.”

The worker nodded once more, and moved on his way east, towards Teras.

Winter called, “Wait! Your name, good man?”

The man smiled. “Donovan. Donovan McKurin. Have a good day, paladin.”

The protector nodded, and then slowly led his horses towards the stables that Donovan had pointed out. I shall have to remember to include a prayer to Whalin on Donovan's behalf, this night.

The stablemaster, a fat, affable man, quickly helped Winter to put his horses up in the stables. For a small amount of coin, the man was also willing to watch over the saddlebags, and see to it that Gremlin and the other horse received decent grain.

Back outside the stable, the setting sun was well below Thayer's Rock, throwing the world into shadows. As Winter slowly wound his way through the growing darkness, small beacon fires grew from atop the Rock, and from several other upthrusts of basalt out in the surf. The paladin wound his way up the stairs carved into the black rock, until he reached a landing near the top.

There, a small dwarven guard in chain mail looked the paladin over. “Oll right. Who be yew?”

Winter produced the parchment that, according to Olden the dock master, would get him past the guards. The dwarven guard glanced at the paper, not so much reading it as looking for the seal and a signature. Then the dwarf nodded, and pointed towards an iron bound, wooden door set in the rock face. The paladin nodded his thanks, and went through the door.

Inside were row after row of book case, and two desks opposite one another in the room. Parchments, books, scrolls, and various writing implements littered every available surface area. With everything else closing down at Thayer's Rock, save for the tavern, Winter half expected to be too late. Many candles burned, however, and one figure sat hunched over at a desk.

Winter approached the figure; before he even stood before the desk, the figure said, “Good. Glad to have you here.” Whomever he was, he continued to write something quickly with a quill, before looking up.

He was the most ordinary man Winter had ever seen in his life. Not too tall, nor too short; not too fat, nor too skinny. His face was one that would blend into a crowd no matter how well you knew him. He smiled a warm, lopsided grin, and said, “Take a seat, paladin. By the way, I'm Rial.” He clasped wrists with the paladin of Whalin, and pointed to a set of chairs nearby.

Winter took one of the proferred seats, sinking into the plush accommodations. “On behalf of Lord Talon Bramord, paladin of Yatindar, and archprelate of Kur Maeth, I extend to you thanks for your aid, and the aid of Gideon Enterprises during the Godwin incident.”

Rial sipped at his wine, before sitting the cup down. “Tell Talon he's welcome.” The GE manager's eyes twinkled at some unspoken joke.

The paladin arched one eyebrow, and stroked his close-cropped white beard. “I will. On to business. I understand you requested a paladin of Whalin, to help defend your mages against the Inquisitors of other nations, which is why Kur Maeth sent me.”

Mhenace looked keenly and probingly into the paladin's eyes, and said, “Yes. That's the official reason.”

Winter furrowed his eyebrows, and asked dangerously, “And the unofficial reason?”

“Is the same unofficial reason you're here. To see if Rakore's sanctioning of mages is a violation of the Karmen Edicts.”

Whalin's paladin carefully set his cup down. Here is a dangerous man. Aloud, he said, “You may, indeed, speak the truth.”

Rial nodded. The candles lighting the room flickered briefly as the evening wind spoke up from beyond the forests to the north; the manager's body seemed almost invisible in the shadows, as though he were a disembodied head. “Protector, you and I both know that your report to the archprelate will determine whether Kur Maeth goes to war with us, or not.”

The protector thought carefully for a moment, before speaking. “If what you say is true, why would you tip your hand in this fashion?”

The GE manager slowly stood up, his body moving unconsciously with the shadows, seeming to meld with them. “King Feldspar has always upheld the ways of his father, Ulrich.” He leaned casually against one of the great desks that was littered with paper. “Ulrich was a blunt dwarf. He saw no sense in wordplay. If he had something to say, he came out and said it. If he needed to do something, he went out and did it. He had no need to lie. And neither do we.”

Rial's gaze was piercing, his eyes illuminated by the candles. Winter flinched under that gaze.

Winter said, “Kur Maeth has never lied to you, or to Rakore.”

GE's manager arched one eyebrow that spoke otherwise. “For four years, now, Rakore and Kur Maeth have stared at one another from across the Choranil Desert, with only the orcs between them. We shared a common enemy during the War of the Undead. And now, Rakore has declared itself open to mages.” He spoke with a touch of venom.

“Protector, you know as well as I that Kur Maeth was founded by Inquisitors.”

The paladin's eyes flashed dangerously. “Kur Maeth was founded by the Fourth Crusaders. You know that as well as I.”

The candles fluttered softly in the wind, throwing shadows all around the room. The tension between the two men was as cold as the autumnal winds' chill. Outside, the surf crashed upon the rocks around the harbor. From below, they could hear the chanting of the sailors, as they sang an old sea dirge.

Rial crossed his arms, and looked down at the black basalt floor. His face was softly illuminated by the orange light of the candles. He recited some text which Winter recognized, but couldn't quite recall. “ 'It came to the attention of the Circle of Priests in Karmen that the ogres once again controlled the orcs of the far western deserts. While nearly a year's travel away by land, the orcs could never present a challenge to the stability of the eastern nations.' ”

The rather average-looking man with the not-so-average eyes glanced up at the paladin. “Should I continue?”

Winter glanced away, and shook his head. “No. There's no need to go on.”

There was an uncomfortable silence between the two men. Below, the sailors grew silent. Over the creaking of the masts at the docks, they heard a woman's voice cut though the night. Her haunting melody seemed to silence even the wind into shame and envy. The song was an ancient one in the olde tongue, barely recognizable as the current traders' language.

Winter glanced at GE's manager. The paladin squinted into the darkness. He noticed suddenly that, in the dim shadows of the candle-lit office, the man was nearly invisible. His hands were covered in thin black, fingerless gloves. His clothing appeared all black in the dim light. His hair was dark, and his eyes deep and brooding.

The rougish Rial met Winter's eyes. “Neither of us could afford a war.”

Winter sighed. “Perhaps. But that's not why I'm here. Not to talk of Kur Maeth.”

The rogue nodded. “Agreed.” He turned, and plucked a parchment from the mass of paper on the desk. “How much do you know about our mages?”

The protector accepted the proferred parchment, and stared at it, open-mouthed. There was an inked picture of a scene straight from the nightmares of the church. A man, a huge desert elf, and a tiny forest elf were each casting spells the world had not seen since the Storm Wars.

Winter finally closed his mouth, and swallowed, slowly handing the parchment back to Rial. “There are tales.” He was silent for a moment, as the rogue lay the parchment atop the papers on his desk. “Stories. Warnings.” He stared intently at Rial.

The GE manager's voice was just above that of the haunting melody from below. “There are more. The… 'horrors' as the Church calls them… They're returning.”

Winter stared at his hands, one clinched within the other.

The Storm Wars. The protector heaved a shuddering sigh. “Dear Whalin. We… The Church…” Winter's training and discipline kicked in, dealing with the mind-altering reality of the situation. “I had honestly thought that the mages they were talking about here in Rakore, were just… charlatans. Trying to ride on the power of the sorcerors of the Storm Wars.”

Rial shook his head. “They're real. There are nearly three dozen of them, that we know of, here in Rakore. Perhaps two dozen of them work for GE, whether they know it or not. Those that know, work for Firestorm.”

Winter looked at Rial askance. “Firestorm?”

“Don't play stupid, protector. Fish for intelligence data all you like. Bramord's been keeping an eye on Firestorm ever since they beat him to the Vaults, before the War of the Undead. Firestorm won that war, and the Church has been scared to death ever since that it had been mages that won the war.”

Whalin's paladin pursed his lips. “Don't forget, it was Demik Coruth – a necromancer – who started the war. Raised the dead from their graves. Created horrors that still to this day walk the earth, during the night.”

Rial nodded. “I know. A miniature Storm War, in a sense. Mage versus mage, sorceror versus sorceror. Their kind of battles caused the devestation that outlawed them after they had served their usefulness.”

Winter rubbed at the beard on his chin. “You asked for help, in defending your mages. With the kind of power they have, in there,” and he nodded towards the desk behind Rial. “Why would they need protection at all?”

“Trust me. They do. For all their power, they're still feeling the edges of it. They're like children who have been given the strength of adults. They still fall and skin their knees, and have nightmares in the dark. Swords can still kill them. The unknown terrifies them, as much as you.”

The protector sighed, and crossed his own arms. The leather belt that held his broadsword to his back creaked. “Why should I? Any one of them could be the next Demik Coruth, or Har Dont – to start a war of magery.”

“Whalin teaches compassion, does he not?” Rial's voice was a soft whisper that Winter had to strain to hear.

Winter's eyes flashed dangerously, the green in them seemingly lit from behind. “You dare to debate religeon with me.”

The rogue's teeth were ivory in the pure light of the candles. “Yatindar teaches justice, does he not?”

Winter stood up, his wide shoulders throwing huge shadows across the room. “What in the name of the Abyssss, do you want?”

“Walk with them! Travel with them! Learn that they are people, just like everyone else! Show some compassion for us, by god, and quit living underneath the high justice Yatindar is still meting out for crimes performed centuries ago!”

The paladin brought both his fists up, his knuckles white even in the darkness. Slowly, he relaxed his fists, exerting control over his emotions. He stared in open incredulity at GE's manager. “You said… Us.”

Rial took a deep breath, staring into the eyes of the paladin. He said a few quick, soft syllables under his breath, as his fingers moved in a pattern too fast for the eye to follow. Dozens of red eyes opened from the shadows, watching the paladin. It was as though the darkness were alive.

Winter backed up, one hand going unconsciously to the hilt of his sword. “Whalin protect me!”

The eyes within the shadows scowled, and then closed, winking out in the darkness. The candles seemed suddenly brighter. Rial sunk down, catching himself on the desk.

Whalin's paladin moved swiftly, lifting the rogue up. “You're one of them.” The protector's hands were gentle, helping Rial back to his seat.

Rial nodded. “Only just. When I have the time. It's a strenuous study.” He gestured weakly for a cup of wine.

Winter poured a cup quickly, sloshing some onto the parchments underneath. Rial gratefully accepted the cup, and drank quickly. The rogue's hands trembled.

The paladin kneeled down before GE's manager, assessing him with quick probing fingers and and a medic's gaze. “You're going into shock.”

Rial nodded weakly, his face a pasty white. “Happens. Be fine. Tomorrow.”

Winter shook his head. “Perhaps.” He reached into his tunic, and pulled forth an amulet. The silvery amulet was quickly enfolded in his large hand, and he whispered something softly. “And lo, Janen called upon Whalin, holding Alcen, his son, to him. He cried unto the lord, 'Why?', and Whalin answered.”

The paladin's green eyes sparkled with green light from within, and popping arcs of green lightning leapt between his fingers. He lay his other hand upon Rial's chest, his healing energy reaching further into the man than his hand could. Winter was horrified at the energy that spell had drained from the rogue's body.

Whalin's protector asked softly, “Were they demons?”

Rial tiredly shook his head, nearly drowsing. “It was just… An illusion…” He slipped into a deep sleep.

Winter caught the cup of wine as it slipped out of Rial's fingers. He sighed, placing his holy symbol back in his tunic. “Damn you. For making me feel compassion for mages.”

Below, the woman's haunting melody ended. The sailors, half drunk and half drugged on her sweet voice, erupted into cheering and yelling, clapping and whistling.

Sighing again, Winter gently brushed Rial's sweat-soaked hair aside from his forehead. He's exhausted from more than the spell. He's pushing himself.

The paladin glanced around the office, noting the clutter. At random, he picked up a parchment. It bore the rogue's signature. Winter frowned, and pulled down a book from off the shelf. It was Rial's handwriting. He put the book back, and pulled a scroll from atop the book shelves. The ribbon slipped off easily, and when he unrolled it, he found a beautiful rendition of one of the galleons at the docks. The style was exactly the same as the picture of the three mages.

Winter quickly crossed the room to the desk, and picked up the rendition of the three mages. He held the parchment and the scroll side by side, beneath the light of one of the candles. In the bottom right corner of both inkings were cleverly hidden initials. RM.

He glanced quickly at the sleeping rogue. Rial Mhenace. The colder aspect of Winter's mind analyzed the situation. Rial Mhenace was the heart and soul of Gideon Enterprises. With sudden clarity, Winter realized that Rial was probably one of the unseen architects of Rakore. Gideon Enterprises was the largest money maker in the western world.

The paladin looked around the office, and at the shutters, as though he could see through them. That cold, calculating side of Winter realized that Rial was nothing to the church; but his death would cripple GE. Cripple Firestorm. Cripple Rakore. If we go to war, hundreds – perhaps thousands of Kur Maen lives would be saved… If Rial were to die.

Of its own volition, his hand moved to touch the Rogue's forehead. It was still cold and sweaty at the same time. The mages are not invulnerable. Winter leaned against one of the massive desks, and crossed his arms, thinking hard. After all, the Inquisition crushed the backbone of the mages just after the Storm Wars – during the peak of their power.

The paladin squinted, looking closely at the rogue. Or was it the peak of their power? Were they exhausted? The Storm Wars lasted for eleven years… Winter looked at the books surrounding them. Millions died during the Storm Wars. The powers of the gods grow with each soul that joins them in their heavens. The churches grew stronger, as the mages grew weaker.

He pulled from his belt purse his small holy book. He had labored long and hard to make such a tiny copy of Whalin's Word, and he knew precisely where to turn, from long years of studying the book. He found what he was looking for on the first try, in the last chapter of the book. And so the Chosen met in the Holy City, to discuss the words of the Prophets. For twelve days and thirteen nights, they met in secret council. And it was decided that the Prophets' words were wise. The power of the mages would be silent for five centuries – or the world would be plunged into darkness with the second coming of the Dread God.

Winter shuddered. The prophecies had nearly come true. The power of the mages had almost remained silent, and then one man became a necromancer. Demik Coruth. He raised such an army of the Undead as has never before been seen in all the world. More so than the most powerful sorceror during the Storm Wars.

He moved across the office, and opened one shuttered window. Outside, the light of the gas giant they orbited gave off its soft orange light, barely illuminating the docks below. It was then that Nathel was resurrected.

Winter closed the window quickly. Arpelos's Champion; the god's Chosen. He killed Nathel the second time, wielding the God Slayer. Arpelos is a god of sunlight, and low justice. The undead are his enemy. A god was brought into existence to fight the sheer evil of the undead that Demik Coruth raised.

The paladin shuddered, bracing himself against a table for support. Dear Whalin! The necromancer brought back a god to control!

He knelt, his arm resting across the desk, his forehead upon his arm. Dear Whalin. The world was nearly plunged into the darkness the prophets spoke of – because there were no mages to confront one of their own, a necromancer!

He sighed, standing. There was too much for him to think about. His mind simply refused to resolve any more that night. Winter's cognitive abilities shut down, and years of training first in Karmen, and then in Giranhad, kicked in. There's work to do.

The guard did not seem surprised at Rial's situation. With the dwarf's help, the two of them put the rogue to bed. After the guard updated Rial's assistant on the situation, he escorted the paladin back up to the main office. There, Whalin's protector began to read through book after book, parchment after parchment. It was then that he found references to the mages' library, carved out of the heart of Thayer's Rock.

Winter moved down into the labyrinthine corridors of the basalt fortress, and eventually found the guards. Two tomanths in chain mail, armed with halberds sized to fit them, stood guard before a large wooden door. Both sets of eye turrents swiveled to focus on the paladin. After their nictating membranes flicked several times, both tomanths stood aside.

Their heads barely reaching the protector's elbows, Winter still had the distinct impression that the two tomanths could disembowel him without a moment's notice. He moved between them cautiously, laying a hand on the latch to the door. One of the tomanth's swiveled an eye turret towards the latch – the other eye remaining locked on Winter's face. With a loud clack, the latch let go.

Both tomanths' eyes rotated towards one another, and their forked tongues flicked out. It was as though they shared a secret joke.

Winter eased into the room, the latch clacking behind him as he closed the door. His eyes darted around in the dim light, the only illumination in the room coming from a time candle nearly a foot in diameter, and four feet high.

The room was large, with huge bookcases, massive desks, and huge, unlit candles scattered randomly about. The one lone candle threw fitful light about, flickering here and there, and sending shadows about. The paladin's trained eye was drawn to one corner of the large room, where the candlelight seemed to recoil, leaving only darkness.

The protector moved cautiously, the black floor shadowed beneath his feet. The time candle had burned down only a few marks since sunset, and Winter had to use his sword to slice the other candles down. Using a reading candle, he spread the light throughout the room.

The darkest corner of the room still remained fitfully shadowed. Whalin's protector slowly approached that one dark corner with the reading candle held high, dispelling the shadows in the corner with calm confidence. A small bookcase lay there, with books of various sizes and hefts. Several of them were bound with leathers that the experienced paladin could not identify. Others were bound with strange devices, or even bound in metals.

Winter blew out the candle, and watched carefully. One of the books carefully drew the shadows about it, as a child might draw up the covers. The book was a dark, purplish color, with runes along its spine that were inked in gold and silver leaf. As the shadows were drawn over the book, the purplish color faded nearly to black, and the gold and silver runes tarnished before his eyes, to become one with the shadows.

His green eyes flicked from book to book, taking in their disparities and their differences. One was plainly labeled Secrets of the Gods. Winter scoffed. Even as the book seemed to call to him with a sirine's song, he knew its secret. A vacuous grimoir. A 'mind mine', as old Master Vilhelm called them. Mages used them to protect their libraries, ensorcelling the pages of the books with spells that would warp the reader's mind, driving him mad, or burning out portions of his brain.

The vacuous grimoir's silent siren's call fell upon deaf ears. The mental discipline necessary to train for the paladinhood made Winter immune to the temptation the book offered.

He moved back away from the books, slowly. His gaze swept the other bookcases; in them, were references of diverse types, from botanical studies to civil engineering theories. Winter shook his head. His senses told him that only the books of that one case held mages' books. The analytical portion of his mind was recovering from his earlier shock, much to his surprise.

One strike, and all the magical books of GE are destroyed. Here and now. And the threat of the mages ends. And at the same time, there must be protections unseen. And yet if the mages of Rakore are without their books, then sorcerous research and studies will be set back a decade or more. He crossed his arms, leaning against one of the massive desks.

“So,” he said quietly. “The question remains. Are the mages that Rakore protects a danger to all the world, or are they our first line of defense against the ogre magi..?”

A woman's alto voice spoke quietly from the shadows. “I prefer the latter.”

Winter spun, looking quickly about the room. His eyes fell on nothing in particular, despite the numerous time candles that he had lit. “Who are you? Show yourself.”

“I, am Teanna.” She detached herself from the shadows, a lithe woman of some twenty years. Her red hair seemed afire in the light of the candles, and they matched the red and yellow of her tunic and trousers. She curtsied low, her hands upon her thighs, and stood up.

The paladin did not return the gesture, and removed his hand from the hilt of his sword. “Who are you?”

Her odd, golden eyes flashed dangerously for a moment, and then she smiled saucily. “Oh ye who sail o the oceans wide,” she sang.

Winter squinted at her in surprise. “The tavern singer.”

She arched one eyebrow dangerously, and ran a hand through her wild red ringlets of hair. “ 'Tavern singer' indeed,” she scoffed. Her mood changed of a sudden, and a regality of poise swept over the small woman. “I am Reanna De'Marte, servant of Music's Lady, Habrem.”

The protector dropped to one knee, bowing his head in deepest respect. “Forgive me, priestess.”

Reanna was silent long enough to let the paladin's slight burn. “You are forgiven, protector. Rise. You tempt Whalin with your pride. The Lord of Compassion is forgiving, yes, but he exacts a heavy price from those that betray his trust.”

Winter rose, his bulk seeming to send the candles flickering away in fear. “Do not presume to speak for the church of Whalin, priestess.”

The singer crossed her arms, and moved swiftly, standing toe-to-toe with the paladin. “I speak for the church of Habrem, paladin. Do not interfere with the mages of Rakore. Watch. Wait. See. They are not the threat, here.”

The protector inhaled deeply, smelling the deep incense of the candles and the perfume of the priestess. “Or..?”

Reanna tossed her head, sending ringlets of her hair over one ear. “I have been here for nearly six years, watching these people. Reporting to the church. They had nothing to do with Demik Coruth's rise to power. They were key to stopping him, and allowing the Lord of Light's Chosen to slay the Dark God reborn. If you stop them now, then the world will have no defense against another Demik Coruth.”

Winter snarled. “And what's to prevent one of them from becoming a Karl Liss? A betrayer? Will you let these people train the next traitor to humanity?”

The singer asked softly, “Do you have the right to decide?”

The protector's green eyes flashed dangerously. “No one man does. But gods do. As do their priests.”

Reanna spit. “Doctrine.” She looked deeply into his eyes, her golden eyes reflecting the candlelight. “Look beyond the doctrine. All I ask is that you give these people a chance. And they are people. 'Flesh and blood.' ”

Winter shrank back. The scriptures of Whalin stated, 'For as my priests shall watch over the souls and spirts of my followers, so shall my paladins watch over their flesh and blood.'

The priestess of Habrem, the goddess of mathematics and music, stood cool and dangerous before the paladin. “You are a protector. Protect them. Stay close to them. And then you can decide for yourself, whether you must protect the world from them – or them from the world.”

He sighed, saying nothing.

The singer glided back from the protector, and moved to the door. “Just so you know, paladin. The door, the floor, and the corridor leading up to this room… It's all warded. By myself. By the Baron and the Bishop Fistforger. By the church of Galgiran. By the church of Lul. By the church of Rahne. The wards will kill any man – any army – that attempts to take those books.”

She pulled the latch, and paused in the doorway, with light streaming in from outside the room. One of the tomanth guards shifted his position, glancing inside the room at Winter.

Reanna said softly, “The books are safe from evil men. Are the mages?” She closed the door behind her, and the latch clacked shut with an echo in the large room.

Winter held his breath, looking around the room. So much knowledge. Lost for centuries. Rebuilt by a dwarven king and a human rogue. Set loose by a few dozen men – and women. And my report back to the archprelate will decide whether Kur Maeth crushes this knowledge – and the mages – or uses them against the ogre magi.

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, and slowly let out his breath. That report might be passed up the chains of the church in Kur Maeth, back to Karmen. Winter shook his head, taking his hands down. His green eyes glittered in the candle light. If it goes back in Karmen, the report will be given to the Circle of Priests.

The paladin left the room, striding past the two tomanth guards, ignoring them. Outside, the cool night air settled over him in a crushing grip. Maroth's faint orange light made the world seem a collage of reds and blacks, bringing to the protector's mind the red eyes of Rial's summoned shadows.

The liquid shadows around the docks seemed to be alive with the reflection of those memories as he strode down to the end of one pier. The small signal fire there was lit to warn incoming ships of the stone docks. Winter crossed his arms, standing before the fire, staring into and over it, to Maroth.

The moment the Circle of Priests receives the report, one way or another, good or bad, they'll launch a Fifth Crusade. They're still seething over the failure of the Fourth Crusades, and the losses they sustained to the War of the Undead. They don't have the complete picture. The Ogre Nations and Rakore, both strong in magic, will invite the Inquisition.

Further out, the lighthouse glowed on the horizon as it swept around and around. It seemed like the thoughts within the paladin's head. The Ogre Nations are currently embroiled with the centaur ants. The ants may not want more than the Choranil Desert – and they may want both Kur Maeth and Rakore. Right now, evil as they are, we want the orcs and the ants to grind one another to dust; taking out either one will destabilize this whole area.

The wind picked up from behind the protector, brushing through the trees like a giants fingertips, before it swept out into the sea. The warning fire crackled and flamed, feeding off of the wind. Sparks flew off into the sea, extinguished immediately. Balanced. The whole of the west is balanced on the cusp of war. Any sudden moves, and all hell breaks loose. Nothing magical, like the Storm Wars – just… War.

Winter drew his bastard sword, holding its cool edge before him, backlit by the fire. The paladins had been next to useless during the latter battles in the Storm Wars. In conventional battle, they were bastions of strength. Against mages and rumors and phantoms, they were useless. And now Rial says that those old, hard lessons are wrong. That paladins are needed to protect mages; that mages are needed to protect paladins. That there is a place for us all.

He sheathed the sword, and spun about, striding towards Thayer's Rock's ominous bulk. Ships on either side of him rose up like monsters from the waters, their masts like skeletal fingers reaching for the stars. His steps echoed hollowly among the creeks and the groans of the great vessels, the clinks of his spurs as he walked lost among the lapping of the waters upon the hulls.

Loud as he was, Rial's assistant failed to hear him, so engrossed was he with several documents in the main office. Winter stood there for a moment, looking down at the man.

Kirad was perhaps a trifle taller and heavier than Rial, but otherwise could have been cut from the same mold. Both men even wore the same clothes, blending in with the shadows in the weak candlelight.

Winter cleared his throat, and Kirad spun, three daggers' blades held between his fingers. The rogue snorted, and lay the daggers upon a heap of books on the table. The rogue shook his head, and turned his attention back to the documents on the desk.

Kirad's voice was a bit gravelly, as though his throat had been hurt. “Rial's doing better. He'll be back to work by morning.”

The protector blinked, caught off guard. “Morning? He needs at least a few days of rest; he was in shock!”

The rogue shrugged, and turned from the documents. “Shock, shmock. Rial's Rial, and he'll be back to work in the morning. Odds are, no one sides you, me, and the guard outside know he ever collapsed.”

Kirad's eyes literally changed color, from a dark color, to a light, almost red. “Let's keep it that away, eh?” He grinned, and his eyes turned blue. “The Man doesn't like people interfering with work. No one knows he's dabbling in magic. No one knows it's killing him.”

Winter reassessed Rial's assistant, thinking him of a very different mold than Rial. He stared into the rogue's ice-blue eyes, wondering what color they would change to next. “Very well. No one else will know. Save the priestess of Habrem, Reanna.”

The rogue chuckled. “I'd forgotten about her. She's a wiley one.” He turned back to the desk, absently putting the daggers away. “So, what can I do for you, 'protector of Whalin'.”

The paladin shook his head, clearing his mind. “Definitely a different mold,” he muttered. “Actually, I want to see whatever you have on Firestorm.”

Rial's assistant turned around, a half-smirk on his face. “You're kidding.”

Winter asked, “With all this paperwork, you don't have anything on the members of Firestorm?”

Kirad arched one eyebrow, his eyes turning a strange purple color in the candle light. “No.”

The protector frowned. “Why not?”

The rogue said, “Let's take a walk.”

Outside, their breath visible in the wind, they walked along the shore west, away from Thayer's Rock and Teras. Kirad was silent, his attention darting here and there at the least sound in the woods, or from the sea. Occasionally, he would turn around and walk backwards.

Winter was patient. He had the discipline to wait for several marks. He didn't have to.

Kirad said, “Here's how it started. Before Rakore was really a kingdom, GE was just a company. Though we still have the name, we're more of a mercenary group that just happens to still make damned good ships. We don't get paid by Rakore; we just fly their flag, and do a lot of trading, selling our cargo space to Rakoran merchants. Anyway, to make a long story short, we had to have someone do our dirty work.”

The paladin walked with his hands clasped behind him, and turned his head to stare at the rogue as they walked. “Assassins?”

Rial's assistant chuckled. “No. Well, one of them is, but he hasn't killed anyone in awhile. Well, actually he's killed quite a lot of people, lately; just not anyone in particular. Er, he hasn't assassinated anyone, not in a few years, anyway.”

Winter continued to patiently walk along, glancing about slowly, waiting.

Kirad hrmphed. “Officially, Firestorm doesn't exist. It's an internal code name we use for our special forces. Firestorm can go where the Rakoran army can't. They can get in where no thief could go. Believe me. I know.”

The paladin nodded. “Because of their magic?”

The rogue shook his head, all seriousness. “No. Not just. Only the best come to us. A good many of them are mages, or have the talent. They come to Rakore looking for more spells, or just seeking someone to study under.”

Whalin's protector frowned. “Also come the Inquisitors.”

Kirad glanced at the protector. “True enough. Which is why you're here.” The rogue glanced about again, and eyed the heavens. “Used to be, Firestorm could take care of itself. They were in and out before anyone knew what was happening. Their numbers have grown – which has made our job more difficult.”

Winter stopped. “I don't understand. Defectors?”

The assistant shook his head. “No. Feldspar – King Graniteshoulders – and Rial, have divided them up into small teams. There are several serious threats to Rakore that we know of. Our other teams are finding the threats that we don't know about yet. Smaller teams means more vulnerable teams; they can still do a lot, but we pretty much let them run themselves. We outline the missions, and they do what they need to do.”

Whalin's protector frowned. In the darkness, away from Thayer's Rock, under the pale orange light of Maroth – the rogue was very nearly invisible. Winter said, “So where do I come in? I go where they go? Protect one or another group as they infiltrate the nations moving against Rakore?” A sudden thought occurred to Winter. “Not the Ogre Nations!”

Kirad smiled in the darkness, his teeth about the only part of him visible. “No, not the Ogre Nations. We're not trading weapons or armor with them, but we are trading spices and information. So, no, we wouldn't want to strike at the Ogre Nations.”

Winter nodded. “Ah.” They turned around, and began walking back towards Thayer's Rock. Off to the right, to the south, the lighthouse occasionally flashed. “So what would you have me do?”

Rial's assistant grinned, and clapped the paladin on the back. “Let's get to work.”

gaeleth/stories/winter_s_tale.txt · Last modified: 2021/09/28 15:50 (external edit)