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The boat paddled steadily towards the dock. It had been a few hours since the storm passed, and there was no sign of anyone alive. Victoria said nothing, doing most of the work and leaving Perah-Perah alone in the back. Passing the occasional dead sailor in the water didn't help matters any.

Perah-Perah tried hard not to weep. In fact, even if she had, she would never have used such a sissy term as "weep" and would have slugged anyone who tried to. Still, she was coming to grips with the fact that she had lost the person she was closest to. Asyra might have technically been a half sister, but only her father Seren was in any way closer than her, and that was only because of blood.

Perah-Perah continued to scan the water for survivors. Soo, Rosileen, Nari... but mostly Asyra. She prayed to any gods who were listening that if only one person survived that it be her. She knew it was a selfish wish, but she didn't care.

Then, among the flotsam, she saw a book. A large green book with old runish writing on the cover. She picked it out of the water and tried to make out the runes. Unfortunately, dead languages weren't her speciality, but she did recognize one symbol. The crown symbol of Faustus the Last.

Her jaw dropped. The book was undamaged and looked like it was made last week. If it weren't for the fact that not a single page was wet, she'd have suspected it to be a forgery.

"So you're what all the fuss is about," Perah-Perah said under her breath, "Why my sister, my wolf, and my friends are probably dead..." her voice trailed off to nothing as hate bubbled to the surface.

It was silly to hate a book, but for a moment she did. She hated what it represented: this thing that she had fought so hard to get, to earn the respect of her father, now handed to her absentmindedly, like it didn't matter, after she lost everything else. It was as if the universe had barely recognized the price she paid in flesh and blood and pain and said "Oh, that's right, you wanted this old thing. I was gonna throw it out anyway, here you can have it."

Part of her wanted to throw it right back, but she had a mission to finish. She carefully put the book back down, then picked up a paddle and helped Victoria row towards the dock.

It was hard to believe this was Dogford Proper, capital of the entire county. It seemed much more like a large garrisoned fishing village with a single stone keep in its center. Its wall wasn't even stone, but made of vertical logs, surrounded by a flowing river that eventually made its way to the ocean.

There was only one boat in the harbor, listing on its side from the storm, a large hole visible in its hull. Part of the town's wall had been knocked down as well, but there was no signs of anyone repairing it yet. Only a few people were milling about, and their arrival at the dock went without notice.

Not knowing what else to say, Victoria asked the obvious question, "Now what?"

Perah-Perah picked up the book and climbed out of the boat, "Now, we find someone who can read these runes, and find out if anyone else survived."

Soo woke up in darkness. Total darkness. Not the kind of darkness where you can still see your hand in front of your face, but the kind of darkness where you could bump into a giant man eating creature and not notice until you were ten feet inside it. It was the kind of darkness giant man eating creatures preferred for just that reason.

Soo was afraid to move. She heard a faint lapping of water, and her feet seemed to be wetter than the rest of her. At first she thought she might be blind, except that the lapping echoed, and tiny drip sounds accompanied it.

Then she remembered. The ship, the storm, getting knocked overboard, the men trying to rescue her, then suddenly being pulled underwater by something... the light faded, but she still felt herself moving, being pulled forward, until she was thrust to the surface in total darkness. She then collapsed in exhaustion.

She was probably in an air pocket of an underwater cave of some sort, or perhaps an above water cave with access to the ocean. She couldn't be sure which but if she was going to get out of there alive she hoped for the latter.

Slowly she stood up, hands high above her to warn of any possible low ceiling. Soon she stood up straight and her hands still didn't touch the ceiling. She couldn't be sure, but she felt this was a good sign.

Next she tied moving around the edge of the water, primarily by stumbling into the water and then backing out of it, then moving forward again, hands groping in front.

Pain shot across her head as what she thought was a sudden low ceiling, but her hands quickly determined it was actually a very sloped cave wall, going all the way to the floor. She stumbled on something hard, and as her feet pushed it away there was a morbid musical tone as they clunked and bonked together.


She had encountered enough piles of bones to know that sound, though she certainly couldn't tell what type they were, other than probably land dwelling. Fish bones, even in big fish, were nothing like these, and bird bones were always hollow and much lighter.

She fell to all fours and examined the bones. Though they were a bit slimy, it was no doubt from the condensation in the damp cave. At least, that's what she told herself, and pimp slapped the dozens of other possibilities that her Ranger training presented. From the length of the longer bones, she guessed it was humanoid. Then she found shreds of leather armor, treated and inedible.

She also felt that the bones had been gnawed.

This was good and bad, because it meant a) there was probably a way out and b) whatever ate this was probably still here.

Then her hand came across something hard. Not bone. Heavier, colder. She ran her fingers down the length of it and determined it to be a sword in its sheath. She fumbled with it for a moment, the drew it.

The room illuminated in a pale blue light. Though at first the light seemed far from pale. When her eyes adjusted, she carefully at the runes inscribed on the blade.

Soo was illiterate in Common, but she knew these runes. It was in the Ranger Tongue, a distinct dialect of the ancient runes once common to all of Gassenti, now used as a secret language of the Rangers. At the base of the blade was the arc-and-slash symbol of the Rangers. It was, indeed, a Ranger blade.

Of course, the downside was whatever was in this cave was tough enough to kill a Ranger, and this poor fellow hadn't even had time to draw his sword.

Rosileen felt the waves against her legs, her face against the shore. She got on her knees and coughed sand. She remembered falling out of the boat. She remembered losing strength and bobbing under the water. She remembered how peaceful it was under the water. No storm, no wind, just calm gentle water. How deep had she been?

Then there was the light. In front of her, like a four pointed star. Salias' voice echoed in her head, "Remember the star," as she ran out of breath.

And then she was here.

Had it been another sign? Had Salias helped her? Or had she just been very, very lucky?

She examined her surroundings. On the left she saw only beach and sheer rock face until it curved out of sight. On the right was the same, except a broken escape boat was dug into the beach. Looking up, she saw the rock face was several hundred feet high. It looked like some kind of building was on top.

She considered exploring to the left or right, to see if there was a village nearby, but then she noticed something on the cliff. Footholds, deep and evenly spaced all the way up. And footprints leading up to them.

What if this wasn't good luck? What if she was here on purpose? She didn't imagine the vision, did she?

She looked up. The climbed look daunting, but her faith was up to the task.

Asyra woke up to the sandpaper rough tongue of Nari. Asyra opened one eye, then closed it quickly before the next lick. She was on a beach somewhere.

She sat up and opened both eyes. She remembered Rosileen... poor Rosileen. There was no sign of her here. Only bits of flotsam and jetsam along the beach, and off in the distance she could barely make out the prow of their ship still sticking out of the water. She wondered if Perah-Perah had made it to the boat.

Nari rubbed up against her, the first time she ever remembered him doing that. He was mostly dry as was she. She realized her shoulder ached, but didn't know why. She looked and noticed her leather vest was shredded, and she shoulder had some bite marks on it. Nari sized.

She couldn't believe it... Nari had saved her! It was like something out of a children story!

Much later, a historian was able to talk to Nari, now very old and father of many puppies and grand puppies, using a number of speech and memory enhancing spells. It turned out Asyra was mostly washed up on the shore as it was, and all he had done was drag her further up the beach so she wouldn't be as wet. He also admitted with some embarrassment that the deer he ate beforehand and the bad taste of her leather armor had put any other possible ideas out of his mind. Still, all-in-all, it was a pretty amazing thing.

Asyra rubbed Nari behind the ears in gratitude, and to her surprise he didn't growl (he was still feeling embarrassed at having tasted her).

She stood up and took in her surroundings. The clouds blocked out the sun so she wasn't sure which direction was North, but after the beach there was nothing but forest as far as she could see left or right. To the right, however, a large hill emerged, which had a steep cliff that faced the ocean, and on it she could barely make out what she thought was a castle. If nothing else, it would be a good place to start.

However, going via the cliff side would be silly, it would be much easier for her to take the long gentle slope on its other side.

"Come on, Nari, let's see where we are. If there's a town nearby, the other survivors are bound to meet there."

Nari had no idea what she said, only that she sounded a lot like Perah-Perah-Mother at that moment, and that was good enough for him.

Perah-Perah and Victoria found Dogford Proper to be almost sleepy and dreamlike compared to the other Proper cities. With the storm over, life was returning to normal, people were milling about inside the wooden walls, going about their business. Outside of the wall and across the river barrier were mostly residential areas, inside the wall were the usual businesses and other services, as well as the Baron's Keep.

"Where do you think we should go?" asked Victoria.

"There are only two types of people who know about these kinds of runes. Wizards and Priests."

"What about Sages?"

"Of course. Like I said, three types of people."

Victoria pointed to a small stone building with a single steeple and a Gauntlet of Salias at the top, "Well, there's a church there."

"I don't know... the problem with priests are they are anything but unbiased. If he finds out where the Crown is, his own politics could come into play."

Victoria shrugged, "Well, that's true of everyone, isn't it?"

Perah-Perah nodded, "But some people are more willing to forget it than others for a few coins."

"Well, there doesn't appear to be a Mage's Guild here."

Perah-Perah pointed to the keep, "Actually, there is... sort of. It's technically a Guild, but really it's just the Baron's personal wizard who set up shop here and teaches on the side. He probably stays in the castle."

"Do you think he'll help?"

Perah-Perah started heading for the castle, "He's part of the Guild, he has to."

Soo cautiously walked through the damp cave, holding her sword more like a torch than a weapon as it illuminated the walls in its pale blue glow. The cave split off in two directions. She licked her finger and checked the air for any air current, but couldn't find any. Unable to think of a better idea, she went left.

As she continued down the cave, she smelled something bad. Really bad. She assumed it was a pile of rotting... something, but before she could back out she saw two red eyes gleam at her in the darkness. A huge troll, eight feet of mottled green putrid hair hunched over double in the cave, started advancing towards her.

Soo stood her ground, thought better of it, and ran as fast as she could. In her panic, however, she ran the way she came, and ended up by the water where she had found the sword. And the bones. She readied herself as the troll came towards her, then dove between its legs when it made a lunge for her. She hacked at its leg, and much to her surprise, the sword cut it clean off. She had heard of the power of a Ranger sword, but hadn't expected this.

Apparently, neither had the troll, it lost its balance and collapsed. Soo seized the moment and hacked at its outstretched arm, severing it, and then hacked at it midsection a few times, its thrashing became weaker and weaker with each blow. Finally, she went for the head, and cut it from its shoulders.

Soo panted. She did it! She actually beat a troll! One of the toughest and most feared creatures on Gassenti, and she took care of it single-handed!

Ha! _And her parents thought she wasn't ready to be a Ranger.

She went back down the cave and took the other route. Now she started to feel some air against her face, and soon a flicker of light came from down the cave.

But something was bugging her, part of her brain just wouldn't leave her alone. She tried to remember something she learned a long time ago. Something about trolls. Something important... but what was it?

Back in the darkness, the troll put its head back on.

Rosileen wondered what she had done to tick off Salias like this. Staff slung across her back, she pressed on. She was half-way up a vertical cliff with sometimes dubious handholds that were intended for someone twice her height, and her bum leg was starting to give her problems. Still a sign was a sign. Perhaps Perah-Perah had survived and climbed up here before she washed ashore?

A gust of wind caught her cloak and threatened to blow her off the cliff face. Rosileen swore under her breath, halflings were no good with heights. How could you be when you spent you life so close to the ground? Even riding Ben had been an acrophobic experience at first. Still, she pressed on.

It was fortunate for her that most of the hand and foot holds were deep and not too well worn, otherwise she might have slipped. By the time she reached the last few steps she was dry except for her boots.

She could now see a great wall at the top, but it looked old and unused, even damaged.

Rosileen hefted one elbow over the edge, then the other, and started to pull herself up, when a pair of boots appeared in front of her. Rosileen looked up, as a hand reached down, and grabbed her by the shirt, pulling her off the ground, and eye level with a female orc, clad in armor, minus her helmet.

"I had expected much more than this," said Sephilith Vess, almost disappointed.

Rosileen could have kicked her, though that might have resulted in a drop far farther than she's like to imagine. She could have said something or struggled or done anything other than stare at the orc with a slack jaw and looking rather foolish, but she couldn't. She couldn't because of what she was looking at.

A scar.

A scar in the shape of a perfect four pointed star on Sephilith's left cheek.

Nari helped Asyra find her way through the woods. Who knew there were so many sharp scratchy things off the beaten path? This was why didn't do more hiking as a child. The blood from the scratches seemed to be attracting all manner of insects, too. It would be a cold day in Acheron before she did something like this again.

Eventually they found a road, a little cart road, probably used by farmers or loggers more than merchants. Still, it headed in the right direction, and that's all she cared about.

She traveled for about an hour, then noticed Nari take more than a usual interest in the ground. She examined it carefully herself, and figured that the road had been used recently. That was a good sign at least.

The castle at the top of the hill became more clear, and she was certain it was abandoned. Still, it could provide a vantage point to find civilization. She wondered if this road led to it or if it branched off.

A voice from the woods called out to her. "Ho there! Lady! Where you headin'?"

Asyra's hand went for her sword. She didn't like voices with no bodies attached to them.

"Who would ask me without showing himself?" she countered.

A young man slipped from behind a tree, "No worries, miss. Just wondering if your business took you to Dogford Proper or not."

"And why do you ask?"

The young man shrugged, "Well, you can go in an all, but there is no guarantee you're going to get out. Maybe you should just turn around and head back. Prennin is just a few hours in the other direction."

Asyra wasn't sure what the man meant, "Is something wrong in Dogford? Are they under attack?"

"Not yet, no, not yet. But you see, I'm part of a blockade or something. I can let people in, but if anyone tries to leave I'm supposed to discourage them. Not that I can do much with only the four of us," Asyra wondered where the others were of if they existed, "but reinforcements are on the way. In a day or so only an army will get in or out."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Don't rightly know, miss. We just got word from up top. Quite clear about it, too. Let people in, don't let people out. So that's what we're doing."

Asyra was going to ask on whose authority, but she could tell by the man's presence and evasive words that he had to be a thief from the local guild. This was interesting, and disturbing. It certainly meant that things were more serious and more widely known that any of them had suspected.

"So you won't stop me from going in?" "No, miss, not if you want to go. Just be careful if you do," he added with a pleasant smile. She wondered how long he had worked for the Guild.

Asyra saw a small branch in the road up ahead, heading up to the ruined castle. It was as good a place to start as any, "Uh, thank you. Come Nari."

Nari broke his long standing silent glare at a small shrub, which was now quaking rather violently. If Nari had more heads he would have let the dogberry bush and the tree branch above him know they had been spotted too.

Instead, he settled for walking over to the shaking shrub and marking his territory before following Asyra.

The guards at the front of the keep weren't keen on being helpful.

"Baron Kell and much of his army is on manoeuver today. _I'm afraid he can't help you."

"Does he always take his wizard with him?" Perah-Perah countered.

The guard didn't seem fazed by her tone of voice, "The wizard Taggart is still here, but no one may see him without permission from the Baron, and-"

"-he's on manoeuver. You just said that."

"Sorry, ma'am."

Victoria seemed more annoyed than Perah-Perah about the wizard's arrangement, "What, is this wizard a prisoner? Allowed to come and go only at his master's leave?"

Strangely enough, the guard seemed to take offence at this, "Nobody is a prisoner. Baron Kell wouldn't stand for it. It's just that Taggart can be a little...."

"Eccentric?" said a man's voice.

"Exactly, he's... oh crap."

The women looked behind them to see a wizard straight out of the Old School. Wizards of the day believed in flash and style, with their robes made by expensive designers and staffs to look as impressive as possible.

This man had none of that. Plain light grey robe, gnarled staff, long white beard, and way too tall for someone in a world where the milk isn't being injected with growth hormones.

He bowed graciously to the ladies, "I am Taggart, wizard and sage to Baron Kell, and I am at your service."


Soo ran as if her parents were hot on her trail. Apparently the thing she forgot was that trolls can't be killed. The troll lumbered behind her, but its much longer legs easily allowed it to keep pace with her.

Eventually Soo found a rough path, hoping to make some real speed, but instead ran headlong into Asyra. They clonked like coconuts and fell to the ground.

Asyra recovered first, "SOO!"

Soo got up and ran up the hill, "TROLL!"

Asyra was puzzled, "Troll?"

The troll crashed onto the path.

"TROLL!"_Asyra yelled and ran after Soo.

It wasn't long before Nari left them all in the dust. Soo wasn't far behind, however, and got to the top of the hill after him.

There was the broken remains of an ancient castle, weathered and crusted with lichen. The front gate had long been smashed and rusted and rotted away. Perhaps, she thought, she could lose the troll here, and did she bump into Asyra a minute ago?

Once past the open gate, she heard Asyra yell out, "Wait for meee!"

Soo turned and stood her ground, Ranger blade at the ready. Asyra rushed in, followed by the lean green troll machine. Maybe she couldn't kill it, but she could hopefully slow it down a bit.

The troll took two giant steps towards her, raised its arm-

-But before Soo could react, a crossbow bolt struck it between the eyes. The troll staggered, appeared to be punch drunk, then took another bolt between the eyes. The troll collapsed on its side.

Soo hadn't noticed anyone when she rushed in, but admittedly hadn't actually thought to do so. Abandoned castles were called so for a reason. Seemingly out of nowhere, Sephilith pushed Soo aside, and poured a flask of alcohol on the beast. Then she took a tiny stick coasted in something and struck it against her hard armour. It burst into flame, and a moment later, so did the troll.

Asyra was panting, trying to catch her breath. Nari was panting because he was a wolf. Soo wasn't even breathing hard. Sephilith turned to her with an icy stare.

"Are you still wandering, little liar? Soo didn't know what to say, but tried her best.

"Uh... thanks for saving our lives."

Sephilith raised a pencil thin eyebrow, and then her crossbow, two bolts still ready to fire.

"Who says I saved you?"

Perah-Perah was in Taggart's room. Victoria had wanted to come but for some reason the wizard insisted on her alone. There had been a flash and then they were inside, some kind of dimensional door spell put to flamboyant use. Out the window of the keep's tower she could see Victoria kicking at some rocks, probably muttering to herself about missing the good stuff.

Taggart's room seemed to be mostly books. Books on shelves, desks, surrounding the crystal ball in the center of the room, being used as a chair, everything.

Perah wondered how many were valuable, "You have a lot of books."

"I sometimes forget things because there is too much to remember," Taggart said in way of explanation, "When you get older you'll understand."

Most of the books appeared to be historical in nature, gathered from every era and county.

"How are you at reading runes from the age of Faustus the Last?"

"King's Common? I thought you'd have a challenge, Perah-Perah."

Perah-Perah didn't remember giving her name, but remembered the crystal ball, "So how much did the Guild tell you?"

"Only half of what I now know, and even that they gave up most reluctantly. Still, it was enough. I should be honest with you, the Guild doesn't exactly invite me to their fancy parties. I'm pretty much independent, and they don't like that."

Perah-Perah smiled slightly, "I won't hold it against you."

Taggart's strange erratic attitudes seemed to stop. His voice went grim, though his manners did not, "Can I see the book, please?"

"You dimension doored me here without even a chant, I don't think I could stop you if you wanted to take it."

Taggart smiled, warm and wrinkly, "I just happen to be polite. Besides, you need me to read it."

Perah-Perah handed the book to Taggart. He looked at the cover and nodded.

"I thought as much," he said, then opened it and gazed at its contents. He spent the next half hour pouring over it, at one point consulting a different book for some reason. He closed the book, then looked to Perah-Perah, and then to the book once more.

Perah-Perah was anxious, "What does it say?"

Taggart closed the book, "Too much for some, not enough for others."

"I don't like riddles, Taggart."

"This is nothing more than a history of what happened in the final days of Faustus the Last and what proceeded after his fall. It is significantly different than what is commonly accepted, and many would refuse to believe this version is true. Others, however, know it is true, and more, and would say that it does not say enough."

"What about the Crown? Does it say anything about the Crown?"

"Yes, it says where it was last seen, and that would be a good place to look, don't you think?"

Perah-Perah frowned, fearing this would actually be the beginning of a long wild goose chase, "I suppose."

Perah-Perah was looking at the crystal ball when Taggart sighed, "I wish I could tell you more, but-"

Her eyes widened, "Maybe you can! You know the storm that happened a few hours ago?"

"Know it? I was drained just trying to calm it down. It was magical, you know."

"I know. But it sank the ship I was arriving here on. Most of the crew drowned, including my sister and my friends. Can you see if they are still alive?"

Taggart looked at the crystal ball, "Perhaps... but there are no guarantees."

Perah-Perah's heart leapt at the faint hope, "Please, try."

"I will need a description of them, as thorough as possible."

Perah-Perah told him everything she could. Taggart then nodded, and peered into the ball. It glowed a faint blue as he did so, and seemed to swirl a little with ethereal currents as he moved his hands. He smiled at first, then frowned.

"What's wrong?" Perah-Perah asked when he broke his connection to the ball.

"You will be happy to know they are alive, for now."

"For now?"

"They appear to be in some danger. Actually more than they realize if someone wanders into the wrong place. They're awfully close to the north-east tower..."

Perah-Perah had no time for riddles, "Speak plainly, man!"

Taggart tried to calm her down "Getting excited won't help. They've been captured by a most formidable opponent, though I could not see who. You see, the ball's gaze was pulled away by something else. There is something very big happening all around us. I'm surprised I notice it sooner."

Perah-Perah frowned, "What did you see? An orcish army?"

"Not only orcs. Humans from Scry, elves from Dreet, dwarves from Rechmond... even emissaries from the Mage's Guild are on their way. And thieves and others already infest our woods. See for yourself," he brought Perah-Perah to the ball and seemed to issue a kind of instant-replay command, for exactly what he described played back to her.

First she saw her sister, alive! She wanted to call out to her, as the vision shifted, pulled back, until she saw both Soo and Rosileen on either side of her sister. They were all sitting on the ground with their hands behind their backs.

Then the vision pulled back quickly, too quickly to see who was holding them prisoner, but she could see where they were, in the ruined castle at the top of the hill. The view pulled back faster and faster, turned around and accelerated forward. It descended towards the Great Murhn highway, where hundreds of men on horseback and foot marched at a steady pace. At the lead was Lord Dassenti.

Then it pulled away again and went westward towards the setting sun, into the woods, where elves were on the move. No sign of Lady Lassailia, though. She didn't seem the fighting type.

Again the vision receded, and hurried over the trees and rivers towards the east, where dwarfs dressed for war marched on the highway.

The vision pulled away again, and when it stopped showed nothing but forests. Perhaps the thieves were hiding here?

But there was no sign of the wizards.

"I didn't see any wizards. Are you sure they're coming?"

Taggart nodded, "They're coming. You looked to the ground, they are taking the air. The showoffs," he added with a humourless smirk, "I fear their intentions here will be less than beneficial to the people of Dogford."

Perah-Perah sighed, "They want the Crown. They must have heard it was in this area and are making sure they secure it. But why the dwarves? I don't remember them being a part of this."

"Perhaps they found out that was the case."

"Hmmm... How long before they arrive here?"

"They will be here within a few hours of each other, I expect. The first of them will arrive tomorrow. Which doesn't give me much time to train you."

Perah-Perah was taken back, "Train me?"

Taggart nodded, "You have a bigger part to play than you might think, and the task ahead is not as simple as it appears. And no I WON'T clarify that riddle. Some things you have to figure out for yourself. Besides, whoever is holding your friends captive is obviously waiting for you, and the book. Now, will you let me train you?"

Perah-Perah nodded, it seemed like the right thing to do.

"Now, if you'd like to get started," he raised a hand, and an orb of fire appeared in it, "I presume you'd like to learn how to... how do the kids today put it... 'blow things up?'"

"Ohhhh.... there was a dragon

"Who had lost its flagon,

"Whose temper was like an ember...

"He burned down the woods,

"With all of its goods

"But also burned off his m..."

Soo's voice trailed off as Sephilith casually pointed her fully loaded crossbow at her.

"Continue," said Sephilith, "I dare you."

Soo closed her mouth. That not being good enough for Sephilith, the orc woman gagged her before returning to the stone she used as a seat and evening vigil. Asyra had been gaged from the start for fear of using her magic. Nari was still unconscious from the drug Sephilith had used on him, but was hogtied in case he woke up.

Rosileen still couldn't take her eye off that scar, as Sephilith watched the sun set.

Sephilith turned an eye in the Halfling's direction without moving her head.

"What are you looking at, halfling?"

"Nothing," Rosileen said quickly.

"You've been gawking since I caught you. Out with it before my mood turns sour."

Rosileen paused, and decided to go for broke, "Why do you want the Crown?"

Sephilith turned her head slowly, "What do you know about the Crown?"

For a moment, Rosileen thought she had made a terrible mistake, "Only that it's in Dogford somewhere. But what I want to know is why you want it. You can't wear it. No one can." "Why I want it is none of your concern. What do you care, priestess?"

Rosileen sought the right words but had trouble finding them, "I want to know if we can come to some kind of agreement. An understanding."

Sephilith snorted, "An elf friend and ranger ally wants to come to an understanding with me? I never would have thought it possible. Is it possible you were sent to find the Crown without knowing why?"

"It's true I haven't been given every detail, but from what I know the Crown is to be used to unify Gassenti."

Sephilith raised an eyebrow, "Indeed. At whose expense, do you think?"

"I don't understand..."

"At OUR expense! Do you think in unifying the island, the other counties will sit back and allow the Treaty of Halffarthing to stand? The elves of Dreet will not stand for it, nor would the dwarves of Rechmond. The mages' Guild, the Paladins of Light, the people of Scry. All the most powerful forces would want to see it destroyed.

"Everything we've worked for these past few hundred years would be for nothing, and we would be 'cleansed' from the island. Every orcish male, female, and child. I won't let that happen."

Rosileen gasped despite herself, "You're talking genocide! I can't believe they would-"

"I probably know the powerful men and women of this island better than you, little one. Lord Dassenti does not care one way or the other about us. Only power. Lady Lassailia hates us with a hidden passion. Baron Hardbottom carries his grudges long and hard. The mage Padamath Izon has long sought our extermination for his own dark reasons. The others are neutral, save Lord Valious, and he is naive as he is good intentioned."

"But genocide?"

Sephilith smiled, but there was no humour in it. "You're right, of course. I speak of worst case scenarios. But I don't think the others are much better. I can imagine demands made on Halffarthing to keep us in special camps with constant guard. Our rights curtailed, our privileges removed. Families uprooted and separated...

"Or perhaps not. Perhaps they would build us a fleet of ships to cram us on like livestock and send us back to Murhn, not caring if we actually made it or not. Perhaps some of those who built the ships would not build them too well, hmmm?

"We are hated, little one. Hated and feared. The elves call us a fallen race, forever corrupted. Maybe once they were right about that, but I don't believe it now. They see only our failing flesh that grows old all too fast and how we breed like rabbits when they cannot. The dwarves hate us because we fight over the same territory and wealth under the mountains. And we are equally stubborn people, unwilling to compromise."

"What about the humans?"

Sephilith leaned forward, her voice solemn, "I believe the humans hate us because we remind them too much of themselves. The animal side, the side they hide under fancy gowns and proper utensils. They fear they are looking into an ugly mirror, and many of us feel the same way about them."

Rosileen's voice almost turned into a squeak, "And what about me?"

Sephilith shrugged, "I have no quarrel with you, halfling. If you behave I will let you go once I have the Crown."

"What will you do with it?"

"Destroy it."

Rosileen was shocked, "What? Why?"

Sephilith's eyes narrowed, "I thought I made that clear. It is the key to our destruction. If Dassenti cannot get it, then my people are safe."

Rosileen didn't know what to make of this. They had been after the Crown for so long, and now she was going to destroy it? It was such a powerful icon, the very foundation of a free Gassenti nearly a thousand years before. It had seen nine kings, some with elvish blood in them, and seven hundred years of history. It seemed wrong to destroy it. Yet she could see how and why Sephilith had made her choices.

Suddenly, their actions back in the ruins near Sorrowtown seemed so hostile, so unprovoked. It was true one of the orcs was about to kill Soo, but would their actions really have been different if he hadn't? She wasn't sure.

Sephilith took on a new light now, true and noble as any knight she had ever read about. She was not evil, that much was certain. If this was the case, then the orcs of Halffarthing might not be evil, either. If this was true, and her suspicions about the Crown were true, then she had no choice but to help.

She knew that Salias had guided her correctly. This is what she wanted. She followed the Star and would not let the Star come to harm. Either of them.

Rosileen brightened up a little at this sureness of her spirit, "Your people must be really proud of you," she said.

Sephilith said nothing as she watched the sun finally set, and darkness began to fall.


The dummy in the all-encompassing white void exploded and burnt bits scattered for hundreds of theoretical feet. Taggart nodded his head in satisfaction, and scrapped bits of debris off his cloak.

"That's good. But you don't have to say it like that. The spell requires no words." Perah-Perah smiled, "It just feels good to say it."

"As you wish. Now, I've taught you what I can in such a short period of time. I think we should return to my room."

Perah-Perah padded the beading sweat off her brow, "I'm exhausted. How long has it been?"

"In real time? Perhaps an hour. In here? A couple of days, I think... these time bubbles are so hard to predict accurately. Once I stayed for a time in one that had accidentally been reversed. I thought I had spent a week in there, when in actuality it had been a month. Then there was the-"

"Uh, Taggart, if you keep this up, time compression or no, the armies will be here before you finish."

That shook him out of his rambling, "Oh, of course. 'Tis a shame you had not more time to spend with me."

"Yeah, real shame," she said, only half jokingly. Taggart was, despite his rambling, a good teacher, and fast. He must have had lots of practice over the years, but with a backwater population like Dogford, she had to wonder with whom. There was something odd about Taggart, like he wasn't so much living in the world as paying rent.

Taggart made a vague 'popping' gesture with is thumb and forefinger and they were back in his room. The sun had just set.

"I bet Victoria is getting worried. I should go. Thank you for all your help."

"Please, wait," Taggart strode to a large armoire and opened it. Inside were all manners of strange arcane objects. The Syndicate side of her did a quick tally and blew out an impressed whistle as it showed the Accounting side of her the impressive number it came up with.

"Now, before you go, I have something for you," he pulled out a necklace with a glowing quartz-like crystal in it, "Here. It is a power-stone. Rare on Gassenti. Rare anywhere. A side effect, they say, from when the magic in the world was young."

Perah-Perah really did whistle this time. Power-stones were a kind of magical reservoir, which could be tapped by those trained in the magical arts, and slowly drew upon the excess energy all around it to recharge itself.

"It is fairly powerful. You should be able to cast your most powerful spells more often with it. I'd give you a larger one, but you should really practice with this first. I recommend you use it first before drawing upon your own strength. There is always a risk of exhaustion when using your own power. Also, there is this..." he rummaged through his armoire and pulled out a scroll.

"Save this for the time of your greatest need, and I don't mean that lightly. It's ancient wild magic, the kind the wizards who used to live here used before they destroyed each other. It is a powerful offensive spell, but how it manifests itself is based largely on who you are, which makes it unpredictable. Consider it a last resort."

Perah-Perah receive the necklace and scroll most graciously, "Thank you, Taggart. I don't know what to say."

"Say you will remember what I told you. All of it, including the north-east tower."

Perah-Perah nodded, "I will."

Victoria sat against the Keep's wall, scribbling down more notes and revisions in her epic ballad. She didn't know how things were going to end up, but so far it looked like a number one hit.

With a white flash Perah-Perah appeared beside her. "Took you long enough! I've been both bored out of my skull and worried sick about you. What did you find out?"

"I'll tell you on the way to the tavern. We need to rest up for the night if we're going to be any good."

"Any good for what?"

"Rescuing Asyra and the others."

Soo and Asyra could barely sleep, often keeping a cautious eye on Sephilith, but Rosileen slept soundly. If Sephilith slept at all, none of them noticed. She stood vigil, or walked around as if waiting for something... or more likely someone.

Dawn came, and when the others woke from what sleep they could get, they noticed Sephilith checking and rechecking the mechanism of her crossbow. Rosileen seemed to notice she was worried.

Rosileen sat up, she had managed to undo her leg bindings, but did not let anyone on to the fact. There was still much she wanted to understand, "Do you mind if I ask what's wrong?"

Sephilith looked sideways at her, "Of course I mind," then she sighed, "It's nothing. It's probably good news for you."

"What do you mean?"

"Your stories. Your children's stories or plays or what have you probably have situations similar to this, and every time the human or elvish heroes come, defeat the evil orcs, and rescues the captives. Am I right?"

Rosileen couldn't in good faith deny it, "Yes, well, they are children's stories. I'm sure you have them too."

"Yes, we do. And they end the same way."

It took a moment for this to sink in, "You mean, the orcs lose in your stories too?" Sephilith nodded, "Oh, our stories are different, mind you, they just end the same. We are taught before we can walk to expect death for our labours. That no matter how strong we are there is always someone stronger. No matter how big our army, there is always one that's bigger. Our history has shown us that victory is fleeting, and the only absolute is death. What matters, we are told, is how you die.

"But those are only children's stories, and I never paid attention to them, until now. Strange matters are afoot, little cleric. I've been feeling the tug of destiny on me since my companions and I left for those ruins. There is something bigger than me going on, bigger than any of my concerns."

Rosileen thought about this for a moment, "You think you are going to die?"

Sephilith seemed a little shaken, almost vulnerable for a green, thick skinned, fanged humanoid. She put down the quad-crossbow and checked her throwing knives and the single shot hand crossbow mounted on her forearm, as well as the surviving hip flasks on her belt, a little trick up her sleeve. She had cheated death before, perhaps she could even cheat destiny.

"That's how the stories end."