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Victoria and Perah-Perah trudged up the trail towards the ruins. On Taggart's advice they had started by beating through the brush to avoid the thieves blockade, then eventually found the old overgrown path that lead up to the top of the hill. Unfortunately it had left them somewhat exhausted, with a steep climb still ahead of them.

After a short rest they continued on, until the ruined wall peeked through the trees. They went up the hill cautiously, sticking close to the sides of the road, looking for any sign of ambush. There was none. As they reached the wall they saw and heard nothing more unusual than the wind whistling through the holes and crevasses of the building.

Perah-Perah wore the power-stone in plain sight, confident she wouldn't need bow or sword for this fight. Victoria held her crossbow cautiously, waiting for a tell tale sign of movement. Perah-Perah waved her to go around the building, presumably to find another way in, while she went in through the smashed front gate. Victoria nodded and skulked around to the west side.

Perah-Perah readied a fireball in her hand, a small one, since she didn't know where her friends were, to be used as more of a distraction when the moment was right.

The crossbow bolt that struck the wall beside her told her that time was now. She launched the fireball into the middle of the field. As it exploded in light and sound, she ran for the nearest cover inside, a section of wall that had fallen down. Despite the distraction, two more crossbow bolts struck near her as she dove behind the rocks. There must have been several people here with crossbows, or one with several crossbows, or...

All was silent for a moment, when she saw a flask of some kind gently lobbed from behind a pile of rocks across the enclosure. It seemed to hang in the air and drift towards her in slow motion, and suddenly she had a strange premonition of what it might be. Perah-Perah fired a magic missile at it before it descended.

FOOM! A fireball erupted in the sky, twice as big and loud as hers. Perah-Perah's eyes narrowed. Two could play at that game. She formed a fireball in her hand and started feeding it energy, then stopped. They were probably keeping the hostages close by as human shields from just this sort of thing, but if that was the case, shouldn't they be in plain sight as a warning not to fire?

Perah-Perah decided on a new plan. She stopped pumping energy into the ball and launched it, high and over the area the flask had been thrown from. As it exploded she drew her bow and readied it for whoever might flee from the cover. A lone figure bolted across the yard, and fired her crossbow once, twice, three, four times in Perah-Perah's direction, forcing her to duck back behind her cover.

Sephilith! Somehow she knew it would come down to this. It was too easy for her to have simply drowned at sea, she just had to go on living! The nerve! With the fourth bolt shot, Perah-Perah popped back up and snapped a single shot off at the orc before she could duck behind cover. She hit the orc in her right arm.

"YES!" she half whispered, half yelled to herself. With her arm hit, she couldn't possibly reload the crossbow, unless it was magical. Perhaps it was, she didn't know, but now was the best chance she would possibly get.

She ran across the enclosure, dropping her bow and readying as many magic missiles as she could. One alone might not be enough against her armour, but three? That would at least knock her down and give her time to use her sword.

As she ran, she saw a small figure running in the same direction. Another enemy? No, the hobbling was too easy to recognize. Rosileen! She had managed to free herself, and was coming to help.

Perah-Perah reached the fallen section of wall Sephilith was hiding behind, knowing this was as good as over. She leapt around the rubble, missiles ready. There was just one problem.


Rosileen blocked the her line of sight. At least, she tried to. The fact was she was so short, both Perah-Perah and Sephilith had a clear shot at each other. Sephilith had a dead bead on Perah-Perah's head with a mini-crossbow mounted on her arm bracer, and Perah-Perah's spell was ready to launch. If Rosileen hadn't stopped them, this might have gone down just like the last time. Probably worse.

"Get down, Rosileen!" yelled Perah-Perah.

"Out of the way, little cleric!" growled the orc. Perah-Perah was confused. Why did she care if Rosileen was in the way? Probably because she had only one shot left in the crossbow. Both women kept their aim steady. Sephilith's arm was like a rock, and Perah-Perah's fingers crackled with energy.

Still, Rosileen didn't really block either of them. They could both shoot if they really wanted to, especially with all this time to take proper aim. The longer this went on, the less sense it all made.

Rosileen's arms were tied behind her back still, but like a cat she made her little presence as big as possible, "Both of you, drop your weapons!"

"What?" they said in unison.

"You heard me! This is wrong. We're not meant to be on opposite sides!"

"Since when?" said Sephilith with a sneer.

"Since the Goddess Mother sent me a sign. She told me to 'Follow the Star' and 'Protect the Star'. And that's what I'm doing. Look at each other's faces!"

Sephilith's scar was obvious, a perfect little four pointed star on her left cheek. At first, Sephilith saw nothing on Perah-Perah's face, but as she turned her head ever so slightly, the light reflected off her scar just right, an equally perfect four pointed star. Still, neither person was fully convinced. But Sephilith was wise enough to give destiny a chance.

"Why do you want the Crown?" she asked Perah-Perah. Rosileen's eyes implored her to tell the whole truth.

"My family acquires objects. Sometimes for ourselves, sometimes for clients. Lord Dassenti wishes to use the Crown to unite Gassenti."

"And what if I told you Dassenti plans to use that unification to commit genocide on my people? Would you care?"

Perah-Perah eyes widened a little, that sinking feeling she had since Halffarthing turned into a bottomless pit.

"You have proof of this?"

Sephilith's eyes narrowed, "You haven't answered my question."

"I will be honest. I don't care for orcs one way or the other. But genocide is wrong on any free thinking people." Sephilith searched for truth in Perah-Perah's eyes, and seemed to find it. She lowered her arm.

"Now answer my question," said Perah-Perah, the magic fading from her fingertips.

"Think about it. The Crown is a symbol, but that's mostly for show, to please the public. None of the leaders are going to follow Dassenti unless he can give them what they want. For Seren Nydassa, head of your Syndicate, it was the removal of the Thieves Guild who I used to work for. For Padamath Izon of the Mage's Guild, it was access to the Syndicate's magic for research purposes, financial backing for the Guild, and other such academic considerations. For Lady Lassailia of Dreet, it was 'taking care of the orc problem', as I heard it. The Barons of the northern counties were considered too small and unimportant to be included in the negotiations."

She already knew much of this, but that did not automatically make the rest true as well. The best lies were surrounded by truths, she had always been told. Of course, this equally applied to what she had been told during the conference in Halffarthing. Perah-Perah didn't know how much she had been told at the Mage's Guild was true, or perhaps she knew all along, and just didn't want to believe it.

"Let's untie the others. We will discuss this further, but I assure you, no matter what else happens, Dassenti will not get the Crown."

Soo and Asyra were grateful to be untied, but unsure of their new alliance. Rosileen managed to convince Asyra, but Soo took a little longer, Ranger training died hard. Nari was fuming, especially because Perah-Perah had put another silver bow on his collar while he was still unconscious. Even after they untied his legs, they kept him chained until he could calm down, which could have been the next ice age for all anyone knew.

They sat around the rubble to discuss their next step. Perah-Perah took the book out of her knapsack, the book they had been chasing for so long after.

"The crown is here," began Perah-Perah, "The wizard in Dogford Proper told me where it is.

"From the book, I presume?" said Sephilith.

"I'm not sure. He claims this book has only a history of the fall of Faustus and other such information, and that the information he gave me was gathered from local legends and stories over the centuries. He's a bit dotty, and I don't know if he was being completely honest."

"From what I had translated by the Thieves' Guild, it sounds like it's up here somewhere. Unfortunately, I think that's also why we have three armies marching this way, not to mention thieves and mages everywhere. They probably sold the information."

Perah-Perah sighed, "What will happen when they get here is anyone's guess. The dwarves are none too happy about being left out, I'm sure. And the thieves know about Dassenti's plan. Not to mention I would expect a degree of political back stabbing if the opportunity arose."

A frown crossed Asyra's face, "There will be a war just to find the Crown."

"Unless we find it first."

"Then there will simply be a war over who gets it. It's war any which way."

Perah-Perah smiled, the scheming side of her hatching a plan, "But if we find it, we hold a pretty big card. We could threaten to destroy it unless they parley."

"We should destroy it anyway," said Sephilith, "It's the only way to be sure." "Destroy it, and some powerful people will want your blood, Sephilith."

"But my people would be safe."

"They could be safer if you play your cards right."

Soo, still sore from her gag, spoke up, and as usual her mind was off the subject and playing in a happy little field somewhere, "Hey, Seph, can I try your crossbow? I won't break it."

"I wouldn't trust her," said Victoria, busy scribbling notes, but observant enough to know a bad idea when she heard it.

Sephilith's eyes narrowed, "Nor would I. And my name is Sephilith, Ranger child."

"Yeah, well my name is Soo. And your name sounds like some kind of disease. Seph is cooler. If you want to hang with us, you should have a cooler name."

"Do you have any idea what Soo means in my language?" Soo closed her mouth and shook her head, "Trust me, I'm doing you a favor by calling you Ranger Child." Sephilith had no idea what it meant, either, but at least it shut her up.

"Anyway," said Perah-Perah, desperately trying to get back on subject, "I say we find this crown, dust it off, and put it somewhere else. Then we get them to talk, or," she pointed to Sephilith's hip flasks, "we blow it up."

Sephilith thought about the plan, "It's unnecessarily risky. You're just trying to find the best possible advantage for yourself."

"If that was the case I'd have killed you and handed the crown to Dassenti myself. I'm trying to find the best possible advantage for everyone concerned."

Sephilith's jaw hardened, but at this stage an apology was too much for either to ask for. She stood up and grabbed her crossbow, "Right. Until I think of a better plan, we'll use yours. Let's go."

They headed to the ruined castle's main doors, passing the castle's only completely intact structure, the north east tower, its door surprisingly still in one piece.

"Should we check out that tower?" asked Soo.

Perah-Perah shook her head, remembering what Taggart had said, "Definitely not."

Where the Great Murhnian Highway merged at Dogford, the armies of Scry, Dreet, and Rechmond met. The wizards of Lurk floated to the ground.

Lord Dassenti the Fourth dismounted and met with Lady Lassailia's captain, Fren Ithilith, at the crossroads. They gripped each others forearms as a sign of comradery.

"I'm glad you could make it, Captain."

Ithilith bowed his head, "An honor to be here. A united Gassenti, it is a noble cause indeed. Especially if the rumours about Murhn are true."

"That they are. The last report we had indicate a massive buildup of soldiers and boats. That was two months ago. If Gassenti is going to stand, it must be together."

"With no one to attack us from the rear," Ithilith added slyly.

"Of course. But one thing at a time, Captain."

A stout little dwarf walked up to the two, battle ax ready. Men and elves readied their weapons, just in case, but this was normal behavior for a dwarf who was angry, and wanted answers.

"Ach! Lookie what we have, a Stick and a Biggie grabbin' each other's arms and whisperin' sweet noothin's in each oother's ears. Can soomone tell me why we weren't invited to your wee parrty, or shall I start hacking kneecaps right away?"

Dassenti appeared almost bored by the dwarf's big talk, "We both know that wouldn't be a good idea, Hardbottom. Not unless-" his retort was cut short by one of his own captains.

"My apologies, my Lord, but the army of Dogford is behind us, demanding to get through."

Dassenti's eyebrow cocked up, this was interesting news, "Oh really? Caught out on manoeuver, were they? That could make things much easier. Send our diplomat to speak with Baron Kell or whoever is in charge of that rabble, and inform them that matters of the utmost urgency prevent us from allowing this to happen. Inform them as politely as possible that we have to set up temporary fortifications around Dogford proper, and that if they are not happy about that they could always try to stop us. Having one tenth our strength, I doubt they'll try."

"Yes sir."

Returning his attention to the dwarf, Dassenti tried his best to be diplomatic, "Baron Hardbottom, I would ask you be patient. You most likely know why we are here, and I assure you the dwarves of Rechmond have not been forgotten. If you will meet with us after we set up camp around the city, we will be happy to discuss an agreement."

Hardbottom was not pleased, "Yoo've ignored us too long, Dassenti, and treat us with far too little respect. I'll hear yoor pretty speech, but I doubt it will make my people happy. An' if any of the Baron's men try to come through MY part of the road, yoo won' see me puttin' up a fuss. Baron Kell is welcome in my hall anytime, unlike certain Lords and Ladies," with the he stormed off back to his men.

Captain Ithilith looked at Dassenti, his pointed ears erect with upper class snobbery, "Will you try to bargain with them?" his tone indicated he was only curious, but did not care one way or the other.

Dassenti sighed, "I'll try. I don't need enemies, and the dwarves were part of the Alliance of old. But the task at hand must take precedence. Wouldn't you agree?"

Captain Ithilith nodded curtly, "Of course."

Inside the crumbling building, only smatterings of light filtered through cracks and holes in the wall. The inside had been cleaned out of anything valuable ages ago. Only walls, rubble, and cobwebs remained.

"Not exactly promising," said Victoria.

"What did you expect?" Perah-Perah said with a shrug, "The original furniture and tapestries to still be here?"

"Seems like another TIFER situation, like back in Sorrowtown," said Asyra.

"Actually, from what Taggart told me, I'm thinking TIHFAR this time," Noticing the confused looks on their companions face she added, "'Treasure Is Hidden For A Reason'. What we need is to find a stairway down. It won't be up here."

It didn't take long to find the stairs, which lead down to a dark empty dungeon. They cautiously followed it down.

Sephilith's eyes glowed lightly red, and she disappeared into the darkness, "This way, there might be something in one of these prisons."

Soo tried to follow, but bumped her head on the low doorway, "OW!"

Rosileen cast a light spell on her staff.

"Not all of us can see in the dark, you know," said Soo, rubbing her head.

"That didn't seem to stop you from trying."

The dungeon was a disappointment to professionals. A straight hall with three prison cells on either side. At the end was a single torch, burnt out centuries ago. It took all of ten seconds to explore it, and the only thing they found were ancient bones all piled into one room. Why was anyone's guess.

Rosileen's staff came too close to Sephilith's more sensitive eyes.

"Get that light out of my face," she growled.


The torch at the end of the hall suddenly sprung to life.

"What the...?" said Victoria.

Perah-Perah thought about what had been said, "It was when Sephilith said 'light'," and the room dove back into darkness.

"Light," said Asyra. The torch came on.

Soo couldn't resist, "Light-light-light-light-light-light-light-light-light-light-OW!" and neither could Rosileen.

Perah-Perah considered this carefully, went over to the magic torch and pulled it. The wall didn't move, but she did hear a 'click'. She pushed the wall gently and found it was perfectly counterbalanced and had been locked into place. Now it gave way to another set of stairs, spiraling down. This was more like it.

The light continued downward, until the walls themselves seemed to be giving off a pale glow. It opened into a small empty room, of which they were in one corner. Parts of skeletons littered the floor, and nothing else.

There was a door at the far end, which led to a bigger room, with more skeletons. This one was different, however. They lay on the floor as if resting, with weapons in hand.

"I don't like this," said Perah-Perah. Don't go too close to them.

Rosileen held her holy symbol high and asked Salias for her protection. Her symbol flashed with holy light. The skeletons, mindless automatons, stood and fled away as far as they could, into the corners, like grease repelled by a drop of soap.

Perah-Perah pointed back to the smaller room, "Everyone back, we don't know how long the effect will last!" When they were back inside, she had everyone get their backs to the wall, as Perah-Perah built up her biggest fireball and threw it into the room, shutting the door behind her and throwing her back to the wall.

The concussion blew the door off its hinges and flung it across the room, everyone was deafened for several minutes. But inside the skeleton guard room were only bones, weapons and armor, piled against the four walls.

The fireball had also triggered several sections of trap floor that fell into deadly spiked pits. Perah-Perah allowed herself a grin of satisfaction, "And they said this tomb raiding stuff was hard!"

"Something feels wrong about all this, sis," said Asyra, "I don't think this Crown was lost at all."

"No, more like someone was waiting for it to be found. This castle belonged to Thadamat the wizard, and it would only make sense that these sub basements would be laboratories or warehouses or something. Not such a formal, almost ceremonial booby-trap."

Asyra nodded, "That, of course, begs the question of who set this up, and why?"

"Prophecy," said Sephilith.

The sisters didn't quite follow, so she explained, "The orcs have a saying, 'Destiny is set, prophecy is manufactured'. Whoever did this believed that the Crown would be worn again by someone."

Asyra objected, "That's not possible. Faustus died without an heir, and it can only be worn by someone who was descended directly from whoever wore it last."

Sephilith snorted, "That doesn't mean he couldn't have sown his royal oats earlier. Do you think the Crown recognizes legitimacy?"

That gave everyone something to think about.

Rosileen's jaw dropped, "But if that was the case..."

"By now there must be thousands of people who could be the heir..." added Victoria.

"Five hundred and thirty one thousand four hundred and forty one." said Soo. The others slowly looked at the Ranger child in disbelief.

"What? It's just a guess!" she said defending herself. Everyone relaxed until she added, "Based on there being one child and thirteen generations, each of which having at least three surviving children. Oh, and of course, a human life cycle."

Rosileen readied her staff, "Who are you and what have you done with Soo?"

Soo seemed a little embarrassed, "I've just always been good with numbers. I'm sorry."

Perah-Perah saw she was taking this too seriously, "Don't be, you just surprised us, that's all."

Victoria whistled under her breath, "Last I heard there is over one and a half million people on Gassenti, less than a million of which are human. So..."

Her voice trailed off into silence until Perah-Perah broke it, marching into the now silent skeleton room, "Let's find that Crown."

Across the room, around the pitfalls, was a single door. It, however, hadn't been blown off like the one on their side. It was made of metal rather than wood, and was securely locked.

"Damn," said Perah-Perah taking off her knapsack, "I'll have to try and pick it... looks like a regular key lock, maybe three tumblers, no magical wards that I can see. I just wish I had paid more attention to my instructor."

Sephilith stepped forward, "If you don't mind, I'm probably better at this than you."

Perah-Perah looked at her doubtfully for a moment, then stood aside. Sephilith took some picks from her belt and twiddled around with the lock.

Rosileen spoke to Victoria privately, "I can't believe Faustus would have had an affair. He was one of Gassenti's finest kings!"

"I'll bet you a gold coin he did," said Victoria, and Rosileen nodded in agreement.

Soo was distracted by some shiny objects in the corner, and wandered off.

After a few more seconds there was an audible 'click' from the lock. The door opened easily into a smaller room, about the same size as the one they came down into.

The first thing they saw was a single skeleton, sitting on a chair. Not a throne, per se, but more like the nicest chair whoever did this could find. The flesh had long since rotted off and had been eaten by whatever tiny creatures lived here. On its head was the Crown.

It did not look magnificent. It was a small and simple circlet, perfectly crafted, but very plain. Inscribed around it were ancient runes from the age of Bremore, the king who had it forged. It was not a crown meant to be a show piece. It was meant to be straightforward and functional, like those who wore it. It rested perfectly on the skeleton's head, without a hint of tarnish on it.

"What's holding the bones together?" asked Asyra.

"Probably the same thing as the other skel..."

"GET BACK!" Sephilith shouted, and cleaved the kings head off with her sword. The skeleton didn't move, but the head dropped to the ground and rolled to Perah-Perah's feet.

"Way to desecrate the dead, Sephilith."

"I was just being cautious. If magic held the bones together, I thought it might attack us."

Perah-Perah picked up the skull, crown still attached. She pulled at it, with no effect. "It's stuck tight."

"That's normal," said Victoria, "when Roland the Valiant died and had his head cut off, the crown stayed on until his daughter Marisai found it."

"Great symbol for the country," muttered Perah-Perah, "A skull with a crown. Real motivator."

Soo wandered back to the group, arms full of armour and swords, "Hey guys, look at all this stuff! The armour is still completely intact after that fireball, and I bet these weapons are magical!"

Perah-Perah picked up one of the suits of chainmail and examined it, "It's mithril. This is one of your standard super-light, super-strong, super-expensive sets of armor that were more common in the old days of magic. Only the dwarves have access to the metal anymore, and trying to buy it from them is like pulling dragon teeth. We've got several sets at home, but daddy doesn't like people actually wearing them. The swords are excellent quality, too, even if they aren't magical. Nice catch, Soo, I'm impressed!"

Not being used to praise, Soo blushed.

Perah-Perah looked back at the skeleton. "It looks like the body's got some rings on. If we're going to loot, we might as well be thorough. Here, hold this," she gave the skull to her sister and plucked two rings from the headless skeleton, inspecting them carefully.

Asyra held the skull gingerly, then noticed to her horror that the crown was slowly sliding off. She grabbed it before it fell. Everyone looked at her even more dumbfounded than they had at Soo's ability to do complex math.

Asyra looked back at them nervously, "What? That doesn't mean anything."

"Put it on!" yelled Soo excitedly.

Sephilith's smile was far more cunning, "Yes, put it on."

Victoria waved her arms, "Hold on! If anyone less than a proper heir puts it on, the bloody thing is supposed to drive you mad, showing you how unworthy you are!"

Sephilith pointed to the separated skull and Crown, "But it came off in her hand. That wouldn't have happened if it didn't recognize her as The Heir."

"But she's an elf! Doesn't that cut down the odds a bit?"

"Half elf," Asyra corrected, "My father was human."

"Which makes her as likely as any human," said Sephilith, "Try it on for size."

"Actually she would be half as likely, becau-"

Sephilith elbowed Soo subtly in the ribs. The others watched in silence.

Put Me On, the Crown whispered.

Asyra hesitated for a moment, and put it on.

Outside, in the great enclosure of the great wizard Thadamat's castle, the four emissaries waited patiently for someone to surface.

"Perhaps we should go in there?" said Captain Ithilith, eyeing the entrance carefully.

"Ach, certainly! Yoo can handle the wolf," Baron Hardbottom said with a scoff, "And I kin wait and watch it have yoo for a meal while I have a drink right here," Nari had broken free of the chain and was now guarding the entrance, eyeing the intruders carefully.

"The wolf would not be a problem," said the elf confidently, "but I fear that the big silver bow on his collar means he belongs to one of them, and we don't need to be making enemies, now do we?"

"Speak for yoorself, yoo've made enough enemies with the dwarves already, stick!"

The young and brash Vigo Cantris, here representing Padamath Izon and the Mages' Guild, raised his hands, tired of the bickering, "Gentlemen, please. If they do not come up by dawn we know they will not come up at all. Until then we must see the arrangement through and trust that they are capable of doing so on their part."

The diplomat sent in Dassenti's place, a short balding man with shoulder length gossamer hair, said nothing, and instead busied himself checking and rechecking notes.

The wolf turned around, looking inside the castle and ignoring the emissaries.

"That must be her," said Vigo.

A head peeked out, saw what was waiting for them, and ducked back in. Nari followed the head inside. Then there was nothing. With a wave of his hand, Vigo enhanced his hearing, but even then he heard only whispers and fragments of some kind of conference.

"You might as well come out, Perah-Perah," he yelled, "We have much to discuss," his enhanced hearing heard a very clear 'damn!' before she made an appearance, her wolf tagging along behind her. She seemed upset, though nobody could guess why.

The diplomat spoke up when they approached "Er, uh, by the order of Lord Dassenti and agreement of Baron Kell and all other representatives here, I formally declare this a non-combative-parley. We are gathered here this day to join in holy... no no no wrong event.... Er..." he cleared his throat and got his act straight.

"Lord Dassenti sends his warmest regards and best wishes, hoping you have had a successful journey. Have you found the Crown?"

Perah-Perah stifled a sob, "I did... but I'm sorry to say it's been destroyed. The Crown was booby-trapped. It seems if the right person couldn't take it, no one could. I lost my sister and priest in the explosion." she choked back her sorrow and continued, "It was horrible. After she put on the crown, she-"

"She's lying." said Vigo, matter-of-factly.

"How dare you!" growled Perah-Perah. She wasn't angry so much about being caught as she was being caught after putting on the performance of a lifetime. That would have gotten her ten acting trophies and a lifetime achievement award from the Troubadours, and Vego had ruined it!

"Forget it, Perah-Perah. For one thing I heard five of you back there. For another, I can detect a lie quite easily with a little magic."

"Oh fine. But things are different now."

"You wish to renegotiate the deal now that you have the Crown, how utterly Nydassa of you."

Perah-Perah eyes narrowed. Inside, she fumed at that comment, partly because the Nydassa's were fair business people in an unfair business, but mostly because her name had been used as an adjective to convey this.

"It's not like you were completely honest about what this Crown would lead to, Vigo."

"We were honest enough."

"My father would NEVER agree to genocide!"

The diplomat cleared his throat, "Actually, Miss Nydassa, he agreed completely. Page 4, Article G, under 'The Orcish Solution'." Perah-Perah couldn't hold back her shock, she had truly believed it couldn't be true, "He... he knew?"

"Oh yes. I have his signed agreements here. The same agreements that compel you to give the Crown to us immediately."

Perah-Perah was flustered. She didn't like being told what to do, let alone by a quill-pusher like this. But he was right about one thing, they had an agreement. She had to buy some more time.

"Could you excuse me for just a moment?" she said sweetly, then retreated back inside the ruins.

"How is it going out there?" asked Victoria.

"Not good. How is Asyra?"

Asyra was resting against the castle wall, a glazed look over her eyes, she was babbling all the way up the stairs as Sephilith carried her, but nobody could understand what she said. The crown had driven her mad.

"She's relaxed a bit now, but the crown still won't come off."

"Blast! I don't want to tell them that. If I do I'm afraid they'll want Asyra's head... one way or the other."

"Your father wouldn't agree to that, would he?" said Soo in shock.

Perah-Perah's eyes focused on Asyra's much smaller pointed ears, and came to grips with an ugly possibility, "We're half-sisters, remember? She's not his daughter. After what I heard, I don't know what he would agree to, and I'm not going to risk her life to find out. There is something very ruthless going on, and nobody out there cares about our well being, or each others."

"We don't have all day, Perah-Perah!" yelled Vego.

Perah-Perah's knuckles went white, "Since when did I say he could use my first name?"

"I don't think he cares what you think," said Sephilith, "You'd better go, before they come here."

Perah-Perah straightened her outfit and walked back to the representatives.

"Now, about the Crown..." she began, not knowing what to say next but hoping she could buy a few extra moments to think about it.

Fortunately, the dwarf representative interrupted the moment, "I don't know why you're jes givin the Crown to them. By what right do they claim it? It was the Dwarves who forged that Crown!"

"And it was the Elves and Humans who enchanted it," said Ithilith, "Without that, the crown would just be an ornament."

"And, just for the record," added the human diplomat, "the halflings can claim some part of its creation as well, though in only an esthetic capacity. I believe they engraved the runes on it."

Perah-Perah leapt at this opening, "Then if the Crown was forged by all the free races of Gassenti, and there is no heir to claim it, doesn't the Crown in fact belong to everyone? What right does Dassenti have to claim it for himself?"

"You're stalling, Perah-Perah," said Vego, "You knew the arrangement and agreed to it. What will your father think if you disobey him? Hand over the Crown, or we will-"

Sephilith popped around the corner with her crossbow leveled at Vego's head, "You won't do anything except leave," she said.

"A bloody orc!"_yelled the dwarf, readying his axe. The elf's expression was also one of disbelief.

Vego's smug face got all the smugger, "This explains some of it. But what could she possibly offer you?"

"Truth," said Soo as she stood beside the orc, sword drawn.

Rosileen followed with her staff, "Which is a rare commodity as she should well know,"

Victoria followed behind the cleric with her crossbow, "But it gets better, sweetie," she said with coy wink.

Last of all came Asyra, still wearing the Crown.

"The Crown has chosen its new wearer. You may inform Dassenti that it is not him," the words may have come from Asyra's mouth, but there as an almost distant quality about it. Like someone else was saying them, or that she was saying them from far away.

"Oh dear," said the quill-pusher.

Vego was, perhaps for the first time in his life, speechless. It didn't last. "How... how DARE you! Now no one else can wear it! You FOOLS!"

Perah-Perah caught the message behind his words. Her eyes narrowed and her resolve hardened, "You bastard! You knew all along about there being an illegitimate child, about the Crown's secret. I suppose that's what really earned you your reward in Dassenti's plans. That's twice you've been less than honest with us. I consider that breech of contract."

"Actually," said the quill pusher, "If you look to Page 6, Article B you'll find-"

Perah-Perah cut him off, "I will make you eat that contract article by article if you keep that up."

"We still want that Crown, Perah-Perah," said Vego firmly, "There was always a chance it wouldn't work on Dassenti, in which case we planned to use it as a center piece, as we discussed with you. Hand it over."

"Not a chance. And that's Lady Nydassa to you, Vego."

"Hand it over, or die. And that's Master Cantris, Perah-Perah." Perah-Perah looked to her companions armed and ready. Only Asyra wasn't bearing weapons, but she bore a confidence that indicated she didn't need any.

"Come and get it,"_said Perah-Perah, backing up to join her friends and drawing her sword.

Vego rolled up his sleeves, "Very well."

Sephilith and Victoria raised and aimed their crossbows just as the diplomat got in the way and waved his arms, "NO! No fighting! We agreed before this began."

"Out of the way, little man," said Vego.

"Lord Dassenti would be most upset if you ignored me. I speak with his authority, and killing these women will not go over well politically."

Vego's eyes flared, and said evenly "Not if there aren't any witnesses."

Baron Hardbottom stood in front of Vego as well, "Yoo'll have to get throogh me as well, Master Fancy Pants. I came here to talk, not to kill wee girls. Even if one's an orc."

Captain Ithilith added his opinion, "Lady Lassailia would be most upset if one of her kinsmen came to harm. Besides, there are those reports of an orcish front coming from the south. We do not need this if war is on the way."

Vego sighed, and backed down, "You aren't going anywhere, you know. If you try to leave this hill you will be killed. If not by me, then by the Dassenti's men, or the Thieves, or the Orcs. Stay here if you wish, and pretend to be Queen, while the men handle the real problems of this land. Then we will come for you," with that he took two steps and floated into the air, then flew back down the mountain. The others soon departed without a word, though the dwarf gave the courtesy of a short nod.

Almost at once, all the women save Asyra gave a sigh of relief. Perah-Perah waved a hand in front of her.

"Hey, sis, are you alright?"

Asyra seemed to snap out of it, "Yes, of course. Never better. Why do you ask?"

"Perhaps because you were a quaking pile of gibbering jelly back inside the castle. What happened? I thought you went insane!"

Asyra looked shocked, "Insane? No, anything but that. It was just, overwhelming! I_lived through nine lifetimes in such a short period of time. Nine! The memories flooded in the time of Bremore, and through all his heirs. But it's almost like a dream now, I can't hold onto the memories directly... but while I have the crown on, I can access them as if they were my own. Great Salias, so much knowledge..."

"Do you know why you're able to wear it?" asked Sephilith.

"Milkmaid, behind a barn, before he was crowned. He remembered it often."

In the back of the group, a gold coin exchanged hands, "Never bet against the male libido," said Victoria pocketing the coin.

"So, what, this makes you Queen now?" said Perah-Perah with a hint of sarcasm.

"The crown seems to think so. I'm not sure, but I think it has a kind of will of its own. Or maybe it's just borrowed bits and pieces from everyone else who wore it... good and bad..." her voice trailed off at this point, remembering something from both hundreds of years and a few seconds ago.

"Well this will go down in history as the shortest reign," said Perah-Perah, "What are we going to do?"

"The question is," said an elderly voice, "What do you want to do?" Taggart was climbing up the hill towards them, gnarled staff in his hand. Far behind him were a dozen men on horseback, a dozen other horses pulling carts, and hundreds of people on foot. In the lead was a man who looked like a lumberjack who had a suit of armor thrown at him.

Taggart strode up to Asyra and shouted at her in a hushed voice, "Take that thing off, quickly!" Asyra did so, though it seemed to resist a little, and hid it under her cloak.

"They know nothing of the Crown," said Taggart, waving towards the approaching masses, "They are here because Dogford is under siege, or at least it soon will be. It was on my suggesting that the town's population has come here, to seek refuge in this castle while the war rages around us."

"You can't do that!" hissed Perah-Perah, waving her hand at the crumbling ruins, "This place can provide as much protection as paper chainmail!"

"Yes, it is a bit of a fixer-upper, isn't it? But, give me time, young one, give me time. Besides, the defenses in Dogford would never withstand the onslaught that is mounting. Dogford is surrounded by three armies, four if you count the wizards, and the orcs of Halffarthing are on their way. Only the humans and elves stand together, and even that is not an alliance based on trust and friendship."

Perah-Perah looked down the hill, and the groups of soldiers she could see in various clearings in the distance, "So they're going to go to war?"

"Perhaps. The next day will tell."

"This is madness! Over a stupid piece of enchanted metal? Maybe we should destroy it!"

"NO!" yelled Asyra, then was shocked at her own outburst.

"It's already got an unhealthy attachment to you, sis. It might be for the best."

Taggart nodded, "Perhaps... or it might be we need it now more than ever."

The pilgrimage finally reached the top of the hill. "I believe that it's time for me to introduce you to someone," he gestured to the armored lumberjack who rode up beside them, "Young ladies, this is Baron Kell."

The mountain man nodded, but remained on his horse, "Taggart told me he trusted you, and that's good enough for me," he gave no indication that Sephilith was excluded from this statement, "If you'll excuse me, I have to organize the camp."

"Make sure they stay away from the north-east tower!" Taggart yelled after him. Kell raised his hand in understanding as he rode off.

A mighty war horse drawing two carts came up, with a gnomish man and woman at the front. The woman hopped down and disconnected the rear cart, "Here's your stuff, Taggart," she said and started rummaging through her own cart.

"Thank you, Sage Mistress," Taggart answered with a bow, "I trust your journey was safe."

"As safe as it can be with gallons of unstable potions behind you."

The gnomish male still on the cart squinted his eyes and immediately recognized the orc, "Seph!" he yelled, waving, "How are you?"

For the first time ever, the girls saw Sephilith smile. It wasn't too ugly, "Hello, Oool. How's business?"

"Terrible now. I wasn't even able to sell the soldiers any healing potions. How's the crossbow holding up?"

"Better than ever," she said patting it gently, "It doesn't even squeak."

Oool looked over the other girls, and nodded to Asyra and Perah-Perah, "I guess you two were on the level after all, sorry about the misunderstanding back in Halffarthing. Seph is a friend and good customer, and I protect both."

Soo couldn't figure something out, "How did you get to Dogford so fast?"

Oool put his finger against his nose, "Ancient Gnomish Secret."

His wife called from the back of the cart, "Oool! We need more potions of speed!"

Soo cocked an eyebrow, "Ancient Gnomish Secret, huh?" Oool shrugged, and drove the cart off towards the makeshift camp.

Perah-Perah shook her head after he left, "This is crazy! We'll never get the walls repaired in time, it would take a week at least! And I doubt they will wait for us!"

Taggart smiled, and removed the cover from the nearby cart. Inside were dozens of large power-stones, glowing brightly even in the daylight. "Only a week? Oh dear, I'm afraid I brought too many, then."

Perah-Perah looked at the heap of power-stones with her jaw wide open, "I thought you said these were rare on Gassenti!"

Taggart winked, "I'm the reason."