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The boats were small, and they had to ride three to a boat. It was mid-Spring and the resulting runoff made the rivers quite unnervingly rapid.

"Anyone here know how to use a boat?" Victoria asked the group in general.

"How hard can it be?" said Soo, "You sit in the boat. You paddle."

"The paddling isn't the problem. It's the paddling into big rocks that has me worried."

Off in the distance, a dim thunder could be heard. Hoofbeats, hundreds of them, rolling into town together.

"No time for debate," said Perah-Perah, "everyone get in."

"Salias will protect us," said Rosileen confidently. "Greeeaaat," said Victoria, "She's done a bang up job so far. Attacked by orcs, goblins, the undead, and mad priests and assassins, why should I be worried?"

"You're still alive, aren't you?"

That pretty much settled it. Everyone got in the little wooden boats and pushed off. Soo, Rosileen and Victoria in one boat, Perah-Perah, Asyra, and Nari (who crouched down as low as he could get, not liking this one bit) in the other. The current instantly caught them and shot them downriver.

Nobody thought about paddling, they were going too fast as it was. They thought only to steer around the great rocks that loomed every so often, the spring floods splashing off of them in great explosions of mist and water. The hoped to avoid wood and blood to the mix.

After a tense twenty minutes, the worst of it was over, and Asyra risked a look back towards Merrick. She could faintly see wisps of smoke rising from where the town should be.

"I have a bad feeling that army wasn't pleased to miss us," she said.

"What do you mean?" asked her sister.

"There fire coming from the town. What if they're burning the place because of us?"

Perah-Perah was quiet for a moment, "I'm sure they'll be fine. Keep you eyes out for rocks. We'll worry about that later."

The better part of a day passed on the rapid river, some hours were spent on wide still portions they casually paddled through, others through narrow rapids they barely survived.

At one point, in a calm portion of the River, the sisters noticed Soo trying to stop her boat.

"What's wrong?" yelled Asyra.

"Don't you see them? Webs! Right across the river!"

Asyra and Perah-Perah saw nothing at first, but then their angle changed just enough that the light illuminated the webs, several of them, spaced a few yards apart. They spanned the river, and must belong to something quite large. Perah-Perah drew her bow, eyes and ears seeking movement.

"Over there!" yelled Soo, who raised her own bow and fired. There was a crashing noise as something fell through the trees.

"We're still drifting towards the webs," said Perah-Perah, "Asyra, Victoria, you're in front! Get your swords ready to hack the web if we get too close."

Perah-Perah looked carefully, trying to find if the webs had a weak point, a single point where it hooked to a tree. She found it, and flashed a magic missile to the spot, severing the branch it was on. The first web fell.

"Perah-Perah," her sister cried out, "on your left!"

There was movement in the branches, just beside something that must have been a cocoon. She shot another missile and heard it scream, then come wounded out onto the web. It was at least as big as she was. Another magic missile struck home, and the beast fell into the river with a solid splash.

Asyra and Victoria hacked the web in front of them, making enough room to get through without getting caught. The next web fell from Asyra and Perah-Perah's missiles, and Soo dropped another spider with her bow before they were completely clear.

"Why do you think they had webs set up there?" asked Rosileen, "Surly not to catch unwary boaters?"

Soo pointed up to the sky, to some birds that darted along the river, and occasionally dived into it for food, "The spiders were fishing for birds with a big net. If they're lucky they get both the bird and the fish it caught."

"Let's just keep an eye out for more, shall we?" said Perah-Perah, "I do not wish to be an entre."

There were no more webs, and by evening the first sign of civilization appeared. A small fishing village located at a fork in the river, where another tributary ran into the White River. A fisherman cast his weighted net from his boat as they passed, and gave them a cautious nod. A couple of children ran along the riverbank barefoot waving to them.

By sunset, the river widened out even further, turning into the mouth that fed into the southern sea. There was a town near the end, where they docked.

The town was another half-way town much like Merrick, which thrived on a steady flow of travel between Halffarthing and Lurk which neighbored it on the west.

They found a room for the night beside the local tavern, and turned in quickly and quietly, getting a large room they could share. Nari, however, had to stay locked up in the stables, chained in case he attacked the horses. Perah-Perah did not tip anyone that night.

"We're only a day's ride from Halffarthing Proper," Perah-Perah told the others, "but without horses we'll have to catch a ride on a caravan. Otherwise we'll be walking for two days."

"Well, nobody wants that," Victoria agreed, "I'll see if I can track one down in the morning."

As she went to sleep, however, she could hear, ever so faintly, music coming from another bar across town. It sounded strangely and uncomfortably familiar...

The next day while the others settled in for a quick breakfast, Victoria looked for a passing caravan that could stand the weight of a few extra people. She found three gathered at the town's border. Two were headed towards Lurk to the west, leaving only the third.

Victoria noticed who the caravan belonged to, and headed back to the tavern. The others were just finishing breakfast.

"Any luck?" asked Perah-Perah

Victoria hesitated, "Uh... yes. There is one heading for Halffarthing Proper."

"Did you make the arrangements?"

"No! No... I mean, I thought you would be better suited for it, being a businesswoman and all. You might get a better price."

Perah-Perah looked at her sideways, it was obvious to any fool that Victoria was hiding something, but it didn't appear to be dangerous. She recognized this reaction, and it fell squarely in the personal embarrassment department.

"Very well, you're probably right, of course. Grab something to eat while we get our gear, and meet us at the caravan."

"Uh, right."

Perah-Perah did manage to haggle the price down a bit. Not that she needed to, the price was already reasonable, but it was always good to stay in practice.

When Victoria joined them everyone except Perah-Perah was surprised to see her wearing a silk scarf over most of her face. Rosileen approached her, a little concerned.

"What's up? Fashion statement? Mosquitos getting to you? Becoming a dancer of the seven veils?"

Victoria whispered in her friend's ear, "No, it's the caravan. Did you see who it belongs to?"

"No, but I did see some instru..." Rosileen's jaw dropped slightly, "You mean?"

Victoria nodded.

"Isn't that going to be awkward?"

"Not if they don't notice me."

"Hence the veil."

Victoria nodded, "Hence the veil. I'm sick, got it?"

Rosileen smiled, "As your personal cleric, I can vouch that what you have is not life threatening, but hinders speech, and is somewhat contagious. That veil has been specially blessed to prevent its spread."

"Thanks, little buddy."

The ride to Halffarthing Proper took the better part of the day, and was free of incident. Victoria avoided contact with those in the caravan, and they avoided her (the nature of her "illness" was more than enough to keep them at bay).

Because they were not an official part of the caravan, they had to get off before reaching the city gates. The road down to the westward gate gave a great view of the city.

Halffarthing was perhaps the most prosperous economically of the seven counties of Gassenti. It did not have magic like Lurk, or craftsmanship like Dreet, nor did it have the political influence of Scry or the mineral resources of Rechmond. Teal was far too isolationist to be an economic power, and Dogford was far too small. Halffarthing made things everyone needed, and made it cheap. If you wanted quality, you went elsewhere. If you wanted quantity, you went to Halffarthing.

Along the coast, its massive harbour and fleet of trading ships crowded the docks, as did some of the Ships of the Line, the warships that kept a constant vigil against a possible invasion from Murhn across the Northern sea. The ships were most likely here to be repaired and refitted, for this was where most of Gassenti's ships were built, as well.

The city itself was a massive architectural feat of stone. Halffarthing and Lurk were the only counties never to fall to invasion since the Murhnian Empire first left the island over seven hundred years ago, and some of the architecture had survived since that time. The style, however, was utilitarian, almost militaristic in its practicality, and lacked any of the stylistic flare of the other counties.

At the massive city gates, a small number of guards with halberds stood watch. They had just inspected the caravan that had brought them, and were presently idle, waiting for the next.

The gate captain, a large man whose gleaming breast plate indicated powerful chest muscles that were no doubt lacking underneath, raised his hand.

"Nature of your visit?"

Perah-Perah answered for them, "Business, we're here to meet someone."

The guard nodded, "Hitched a ride on the caravan, did ya?"

Perah-Perah nodded in her graceful, slightly sideways way.

"Right. That'll be five copper a piece."

Each paid their own way, using some of the cash they brought from Sorrowtown, they were each still quite wealthy from that adventure. They were about to pass the gates when the gate captain spoke up: "Is that your wolf?"

Perah-Perah was uncomfortable about leaving Nari outside the city gates again, and was about to bargain with the guard when he suddenly added, "Keep him on a short leash, any damage he causes you will be held responsible for."

Perah-Perah nodded again, "Of course," as if they'd find her.

To say the least they were exhausted. Ever since that fateful day in Sorrowtown, the group had been on the move day in and day out. With the exception of Merrick they only ever stopped overnight, and Merrick of course had its own problems. Also, now that they were here, they weren't quite sure what to do next, other than follow up leads.

But, for at least a day or two, that could wait. After all, they wanted to wait for their horses to be brought to them (if possible). Also, Sephilith was here, and to the best of their knowledge she wasn't going anywhere. They would check in with Lord Valious and see if he could be of assistance, though the exact nature of their mission would have to be secret. They could also ask some questions around with members of Vedit, the guild of thieves who ran Gassenti from the shadows... something the Nydassa Syndicate sought to change someday.

But it could all wait until tomorrow.

First thing was first. They hired a messenger, and sent him on his way back to Merrick with a sealed letter for the Mayor. With any luck, their horses would be brought back in a couple of days. They didn't have enough money on hand to buy new horses for everyone, and even if they did, Perah-Perah and Asyra did not wish to continue without them. So until they arrived, they could only wait. Not that anyone minded.

That day they stayed at the finest lodgings in Halffarthing Proper, the Blue Swan. It was so large and opulent it had a number of stores on the first floor, catering to the rich merchants who often stayed there. In fact, one of the finest tailors in Gassenti had a branch store there, Zamondo's.

None of the women could resist getting a custom outfit made during their stay. They had their measurements taken and ordered outfits to suit their needs, though they wouldn't be ready for a couple of days (cut down from a week by some financial incentive). Soo had never been to such a store before, but then all stores were new to her, and she trusted the judgement of her friends when ordering hers.

After that, they settled in for some first rate pampering. Hot baths with freshly drawn water and individual tubs, fresh silken sheets on the beds, luxurious meals served whenever they wanted. Professional masseuses at their beck and call... all in all it was a very wonderful, if very short couple of days.

Sephilith's horse was breaking out into a froth and threatened to collapse, but she couldn't stop now. They were gaining on her. The blasted fool priest from Merrick had sent her to an ambush! Or had he known?

But she knew what the book was for, and she now knew how to read it. Oh yes, she got that much information before they tried to kill her. It was quite clear about certain things. The history of Gassenti was a lie, for one thing, but that didn't surprise her. The humans always changed history to fit their needs. The orcs did as well, but at least nobody ever believed the lies. When the second in command said the chief died of a tragic accident, they all knew it involved seventy or so accidental stab wounds in the back.

She finally knew where IT was, but she wasn't safe. Nor would she be for a long time. She had to lose or kill the men following her, then find somewhere safe to hide for a couple of days. She hoped Oool was still in Southerpost, he could hide her as long as she needed, and repair her now damaged crossbow.

But then, when it was safe, she would ride to the nearest port and go where the book instructed her.

North. To Dogford.


All too soon, reality and duty crept back in. A messenger arrived telling them their horse and mule had arrived in town safely and were presently in the Blue Swan's stables. A sealed letter addressed to Perah-Perah informed them as to what had happened after they left, it was as cryptically worded as her had been to him:

I'm afraid your friends were not happy to miss you, and they made their displeasure quite well known. I explained to them you were unable to accommodate them, but these were of the sort who do not take "No" as an answer, only as an excuse.

Still, despite their VERY thorough and rather EXCESSIVE complaint, they left without serious incident, though it will take some time to clean up their mess.

However, I would ask that you bring V's attention to this matter, as they might be enquiring about you elsewhere. P.S. I highly doubt they act on V's orders, and I believe they are returning South.

Perah-Perah frowned as she read the message. Rosileen and Asyra were downstairs looking in more of the stores, the others were resting here with her. Perah-Perah shooed Soo away who was trying to read the message over her shoulder.

"You can't even read, why are you bothering?"

Soo frowned, "I want to learn."

Tuning her lute across the room, Victoria smiled, "If you want to learn, I'll help you out."


"Sure, go buy some paper, some ink and a quill and I'll help you out."

Soo sprang up and rushed out of the room.

"That should keep you out of your hair for a while."

"Thanks, Victoria. But now you're stuck with her."

"Just remember you owe me. Besides, I like to see people who want to learn. I saw you frowning, is it bad news?"

Perah-Perah shrugged, "Not exactly. Merrick seemed to have taken some damage because of us, but nothing serious."

"That's good."

"But the hoard looking for us might be heading this way."

"That's bad."

"Yes, it is. I think our rest is officially over. Time to work."

However, as the saying goes, 'it never rains but it pours buckets of hot lava'. Before they could leave the room, there was a knock at the door.

"Yes?" said Perah-Perah, not feeling like opening it again.

"Is this the Nydassa party?"

Perah-Perah's long pointed ears perked up even more than usual, they had used a pseudonym for this room.

"I'm afraid you are mistaken," she said to the closed door, inching towards her sword and bow.

"Ah, I'm sorry, that was just a formality. I should have said 'This IS the Nydassa party'."

Perah-Perah gripped her bow, Victoria her crossbow. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

There was a pause, the voice behind the door apparently thinking. "Seeing as you did not expect me, and as such are probably preparing for the worst, I suppose I should give you my message through the safety of this closed and hopefully locked door."

"Whatever makes you happy, I still don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course. In that case, if you happen to run into anyone who happens to have the last name Nydassa, would you please let her know that she is eagerly expected at the Halffarthing Proper Mage's Guild. It is a matter of some importance, and that your, I mean her, father is involved. He seemed quite insistent that someone called Ra-Ra would come."

The bow was drawn and pointed at the door, just in case, "If I ever meet this person,_I'll be sure to let them know."

"Very well, don't let me keep you from being someone else," and with that footsteps faded down the hall.

Victoria eased her grip on her crossbow a little, "What do you think?"

Perah-Perah thought about it for a moment, "Only da- my father calls me Ra-Ra, but they could have found that information any number of ways. It seems unlikely that father would deal with the Mages' Guild. We've never seen eye to eye. But then, I thought the same thing about him with Lady Lassailia. I'll go, but be ready for a trap."

"Will that do any good against the Mages?"

"Probably not, but it's the principle of the thing that's important."

They found Asyra trying a variety of perfumes on Rosileen. Rosileen had never tried such things, most halflings didn't, and especially not priestesses. Instead they preferred scented baths and the like. Secretly she wondered if Maslo liked this sort of thing.

Soo showed up later with a book of blank paper, and Victoria promised to teach her the basics once they had some free time. Now that they were together, they decided to go to the Mage's Guild first, and see where that led.

The Guild could hardly be missed, especially in the bland practical architecture of Halffarthing Proper. It was a three sided pyramid, black as night, with pure white stylized lightning bolts running up each side. Though it looked magical, it was not, instead owing its existed to the expert craftsmanship of the dwarves of Rechmond. This one was only one of the two original Guild pyramids to survive the Dark Years, the other being the headquarters in Teal. Due to the animosity between dwarfs and orcs, it was unlikely that the dwarfs would replace this one if it fell.

There was no apparent front door, but then, that was the idea. If you could find the way in you passed the first test. Perah-Perah found it quickly enough, however, and almost perfect seam in stone, visible only in the right angles.

Asyra and the others watched in case of an ambush while Perah-Perah announced herself, "Has someone called me? If so, allow me entrance!"

A hole seemed to appear in the door, and a pair of eyes peered out, "You are Perah-Perah Nydassa and company?"

"Yes. What are your intentions?"

The face disappeared and the door smoothly and effortlessly slid open, "Come in, they are waiting for you."

"Oh 'they' are, are 'they'?"

"Er... yes, 'they' are," said the guard, not sure of what to make of her tone, "Ummm, please leave the wolf outside. Thank you." Nari looked at Perah-Perah with his big sad eyes as the door quietly closed in front of him.

"I just work the door, so you might want to wait here while I get Master Cantris," the guard shuffled away leaving the girls inside to look around a very, very plain and boring corridor.

He returned shortly, along with a young mage. Young, and handsome. His hair was short and dark, his face fair and unblemished. He had eyes that were deep blue that you could swim in, or perhaps drown. He moved with a grace that indicated breeding and class, and if he smiled, though it looked like he rarely did, it would not doubt light up a room.

Perah-Perah nudged Asyra in the ribs, "Close your mouth, sis, you're drooling." Asyra shut her hanging jaw.

"These are them?" he asked the guard, his voice pleasant but harsh.

"Yes, sir."


"Er, yes master."

He arched an eyebrow as if able to detect the lack of a capital in the guard's use of Master, "Very well, leave us."

The guard bowed and left.

"I am Vego Cantris," the young man said, his eyes appraising each of them, and not find much to approve of. Finally they settled on Perah-Perah, who was giving him an equally disapproving stare, "You must be Perah-Perah."

"Yes," she replied as if the universe would be severely out of alignment if it were otherwise, "I must."

"This way please," he said, gesturing down the hall. It opened into a large room, one wall was on an angle equal to the outside. This was some kind of common lounge area, for there were no laboratories, arcane symbols (other than strictly decorative) or other expected wizard apparatuses. There was a large central table and many chair of various shapes and sizes spread about.

However, the most interesting feature were the windows. Mostly because from the outside it was clear there were none, yet inside against the sloped wall, you could see Halffarthing Proper quite clearly.

"An interesting illusion you have there, Vego."

Vego seemed to cringe ever so slightly at the use of his first name, "Yes, it's simple, but serves it purpose. Now, if I might get to business, your father, the esteemed 'collector' Seren Nydassa, has been informed as to your involvement of recent events. Apparently he was not pleased."


"Neither were we, to be honest, though for different reasons. We were assured he would use his best men, The Three. Unfortunately, security prevented him from explaining even to them just how important this mission was, so they saw no reason not to give you a chance to 'prove yourself', as it were. A noble gesture, perhaps, but potentially disastrous under the circumstances."

Asyra's heads began to swim. She whispered to Perah-Perah, "First Lady Lassailia, now the Mage's Guild? What is father up to?"

Perah-Perah put her finger to her lips, making it clear such discussion should occur at another time. She then spoke up, "Where exactly are we going, Vego."

Another cringe, "We are going to the Conference Hall, where your father and the others involved will discuss what actions you are to take next."

Perah-Perah's eyes lit up in vindication, "I knew it! You have a crystal ball, don't you?"

"A what?" asked Soo, the obligatory ignorant one.

Asyra quickly whispered her an explanation, "A magical device that can allow you to see other places, times or possibilities, though it tends to be vague and sometimes inaccurate. However, if you have two or more, it's very easy to have meetings with people even if they're across the island. They're exceedingly rare, relics from the days of High Magic, but we've always suspected that the Mage's Guild had at least three."

"Actually we have seven," said Vego making it quite clear his hearing was sharp even if his ears weren't pointed, "one in each Guild Hall. And we recently discovered that the Rabble, the ones who call themselves Vedit, have one as well, though we aren't sure where." Perah-Perah made mental notes on this information. "So we're having a crystal-conference, are we?" she said coining the term off the top of her head.

"Yes. You and your sister alone will participate. The others must wait," he gestured to a large set of oaken doors, "Through here, please," after the sisters entered, he raised his hand to stop the rest, "Wait here," he said, and closed the door in their faces, leaving them standing there dumbfounded.

"Nice guy," said Victoria, "I hope I meet him in a dark alley sometime."

Rosileen, however, could sense some of the power that flowed in him, "No, you don't."

The Conference Room was circular, with a number of chairs spaced evenly around the circumference. There were no tables, however. It appeared that meetings were held by each person going to the center of the room and saying his part before sitting back down and letting someone else take the center.

There was no one in the center now, however. Only a simple stone pilar with a clear crystal ball elevated from a silver ring pedestal.

Vego was not the sort to play up dramatics and yell out "Behold, the Eye of the Mages!" or any such nonsense. He simply commanded Perah-Perah and Asyra to stand in front of the crystal ball, while he and an older more senior mage stood on the other side.

"You will feel a presence trying to touch your mind," said Vego, "don't fight it."

It happened almost as soon as he said it, and despite his advice, they instinctively fought the probing feeling. It quickly became clear, however, that they could only delay the inevitable. Once they relented, things went much more smoothly.

The crystal ball seemed to be liquid, and open into a tunnel, a tunnel with water all around. Their thoughts were pulled through the tunnel, seeming to already know what the destination was. At the end of the tunnel a light appeared which they now felt like they were going to be thrown against, a rushing noise like blood against the eardrums filled their minds. The sensation accelerated and the light got larger until they sped through it at a frightening speed.

The sisters could see each other, real and yet ethereal, in this strange empty wasteland. In front of them was a ghostly representation of the pedestal and crystal, and Vego and the elder standing by it.

"Now what?" asked Perah-Perah.

"Now we wait," answered Vego.

A moment later there was another rushing noise. Then everything became solid. It was as if they had only been half there, and now the other half had been superimposed on them. In addition, there were three more men now in the room.

Seren, Perah-Perah's father, stood to the left. To the right was another wizard of sorts, or perhaps an advisor. Either way he had a long beard. In the middle was the latest surprise.

Lord Dassenti the Third.

The ruler of Scry, and defacto leader of Gassenti politics, took up the room like no other. he was powerfully built, with a long burly moustache that drooped over the sides of his mouth, and short cropped hair with slightly widowed peaks. His eyes were stern and yet wizened. He seemed every bit the leader of men he was purported to be.

"Good, you're all here," said Dassenti, "we can begin."

Another person might have blurted out 'What is this all about?', but Perah-Perah was too well trained by her father, she kept her cards close to her chest.

"Very well, what additional information do you feel I require, seeing as this only slows our progress searching for the book."

Dassenti almost smiled, but he too knew how to keep a poker face, "I can see why you have so much faith in her, Nydassa."

Instead of a girlish squeak of "You do? Really?" from the news of her father's praise (which someone like Soo would have done if she wasn't trying so hard to get away from them), she allowed herself a slight smirk.

Dassenti returned his attention to Perah-Perah, "Let me begin by congratulating you. You have achieved more, tracking the book this far, than anyone in our circle could have expected. You've earned more than enough honor in the eyes of your peers, and if you wished to end your pursuit nothing would tarnish that."

Perah-Perah responded diplomatically, "I believe we have more to contribute than you might realize. Those who ride with us come from a background of talents, and have been indispensable thus far. With them I am sure we can complete this task."

"Good," responded Dassenti, the last thing she expected, "Then you will need to know more about what it is you seek. What do you know?"

Perah-Perah looked to her father, who nodded, "It is a journal, written before the Fall of Kings, we believe. It probably has information on a lost storehouse of magic or treasure."

"It is not just any journal. Three hundred years ago there was the last of the Kings. Faustus. He was a good king, perhaps the best, according to legend, especially when it came to dealing with his enemies. He knew that dark forces from across the ocean were preparing an invasion, and what's more, he knew that two of his most trusted and powerful wizards, the brothers Ethorod and Thadamat were about to change their allegiance.

"The brothers had come from the mainland of Murhn, and Faustus now believed them to be planted here under the guise of allies. The King managed to play one brother against the other, and they dueled to the death in a year long battle. When Ethorod was killed, Faustus swept in to defeat a weakened Thadamat. "At the top of his castle, Faustus looked out to the sea and saw his victory was short lived. It seemed the entire black fleet from across the sea had arrived. Faustus organized a desperate defense, but quickly fell from an onslaught of arrows launched from the ships before they even landed.

"Most of Faustus' men died that day, but one was known to have lived. A man named Gailix, one of Faustus' captains, was by his side when he died. He and a few others fled the North, which was quickly consumed in Darkness, and came to the castle whose ruins you visited in Dreet, and fortified this castle.

"Of course, it wasn't enough. The Darkness swept over the island as far as Halffarthing before it was stopped, and eventually pushed back. Those ruins apparently were where Galix died, and only he knew what happened to the lost Crown. That is what is in the journal. That is why it is so important."

Perah-Perah knew where this was going. Besides being the leader of the most powerful and influential county on Gassenti, Dassenti had claim to royal blood, albeit indirect. Faustus, as everyone knew, had died without an heir.

"Do you intend to be King, Lord Dassenti?" Perah-Perah asked as directly as possible.

This time Dassenti did smile, her insight struck home, "Not exactly. The crown is now useless. In its time it was great beyond measure, a storehouse of knowledge and wisdom, but it was designed from the start to be worn only by the King or Queen and their direct decedents. Since Faustus died heirless, it cannot be worn by anyone.

"No, its importance comes more from as a symbol than anything. We have rumours of the forces of Murhn building up for another invasion. In these dark times, the symbol of Kings returning from the lost ages of time, would bring immeasurable morale and remind us that we are not fighting for only our farms and towns, but that we were, that we ARE something great, and worth defending."

'Pretty speech', thought Perah-Perah, 'how long have you rehearsed that?'

What she said instead was: "The threat from abroad may be closer than you think."

Dassenti's features hardened, "What do you mean?"

With that, Asyra and Perah-Perah recounted the events in Merrick, with particular emphasis on what they found in the evil basement shrine, and the possibility of Murhnian agents already working in Gassenti.

Dassenti listened carefully, then conferred with the old man in private for a moment, then with Seren after that. Then he came back and addressed the sisters.

"I see. This is serious news indeed, though not completely unexpected. We've had reason to doubt the loyalty of the Halffarthing orcs for quite some time, and I think this makes matters only worse. It also make the journal's recovery even more important. So it lies to you to find it. The Three are abroad again, following a possible second lead, but you are much closer to the trail. I trust you will succeed."

"As always, we will do our best."

"Good. Now, I must also give you an additional task. This orc woman, the one who has the journal. She may have already read it and committed it to memory. If she destroys the book, it is important she lives. But if the book is found intact and unaltered, it is equally important that she dies. I hope you understand."

"I will do what I must," Perah-Perah said non-commitally, making a mental note that this was the second person to demand the orc woman Sephilith dead. Granted, she had her own reasons for wanting to kill her, the scar she had been given still itched slightly, but there was something tainted about killing on someone else's orders. It was their blood on your hands, and she was nobody's hand towel.

"Good. Now with that said, I want one thing to be perfectly clear. We are working together on this. That means cooperation. I know you and the Wizards don't see eye to eye, but you are to give each other whatever assistance the other requires. Is that understood?"

Vego nodded, but obviously didn't like it.

After Dassenti finished speaking, he and the old man left, as did Vego and the elder, leaving the sisters alone with Seren.

"What is going on here?" Perah-Perah sternly asked, "Since when have we ever worked with Lord Dassenti or Lady Lassailia?"

"Since I found it to be an advantage," her father answered sharply. His voice then softened, "Ra-Ra, Asyra, I did not explain any of this to you because I thought you were simply going to return to me with a map, or give it to The Three if you met them on the way back. Once you returned and The Three were safely on their mission, I would have explained the rest. I wanted you to be part of this, but not in the field. I hope you understand."

"But why? Dassenti has tried to shut us down in the past, and we've had no reason to be involved in Dreet affairs in the past. Now the Wizards are involved? You know they have no love for us, especially after we acquired that Staff of the Shield before they did. How does this work to your advantage?"

"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer," Seren quoted, then smiled, "Besides, if all goes well, soon we won't have to worry any further about the one faction you haven't mentioned yet."

Perah-Perah thought about this for a second, and was about to blurt, "Vedit?" when her father put his fingers to her lips. She then remembered what Vego Cantris said, the Thieves Guild has a crystal ball too. They could be eavesdropping.

"I see."

"Good. Remember what Dassenti said, the Mages have to help you, with anything. You should go now, and please, both of you... be careful... and get out of Halffarthing as soon as possible."

They returned to the Conference Room, where the crystal ball seemed to shimmer back into solid form.

Vego came over to them, "So I trust you will be on your way to complete your mission?"

Perah-Perah and Asyra both smiled, the kind of smile you have when you have someone's nether regions in a vice grip, but you haven't yet squeezed.

"Not yet. First we need you to train us. Both of us are dabblers in the mystic arts, but if this mission is going to succeed, we need you to train us further."

"Absolutely not! You are outsiders! You do not have the will or the discipline to handle higher spells!"

Perah-Perah had had enough of his tone, "Perhaps you went deaf during the conference? Dassenti said you must provide any and all assistance to us. Is that clear?"

Vego's expression said it all.


The training was brutal, and intentionally so. Not having time to go through the usual formal training, Vego gave them a "crash course" with an emphasis on "crash". In order to handle more powerful spells, both the mind and body had to be given rigorous training. Or so Vego had claimed.

It wasn't until late that evening that they were finished. Neither of them felt stronger, they felt only pain. However, Vego did give them a few spells afterwards to add to their books.

"What a jerk!" said Asyra, rubbing her back.

"He enjoyed it", said Perah-Perah trying to soothe her shoulder, "I could tell."

"That's it. Back to the hotel! It's getting late and I need a masseuse!"

"You'll get no argument from me."

Outside, they spoke more freely. The others were curious as to what happened inside, but Perah-Perah gave them only the details pertaining to their mission. As they walked back to their lodgings, the sisters walked ahead, with Nari padding along side them, and spoke further on the questions still on their minds.

"The Thieves Guild..." said Asyra half to herself, "You don't think-"

Perah-Perah nodded, "Yes, I do."

"A Guild War with Vedit?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think it might go deeper than that."

"You mean Dassenti and the others."

Perah-Perah nodded, "This could in part be a lot of P.R. and backscratching. We help Dassenti and get him the crown, which he presents to the public as a symbol of our glorious past and potential future. Dassenti's popularity amongst nobles and merchants goes up. Dassenti returns the favor and declares a war on crime, helping us get rid of Vedit and allowing the Syndicate to fill the void. Dassenti's popularity goes up again."

Asyra nodded, "And with his popularity so high, he could probably get away with just about anything-"

"-Including declaring himself the new king." Perah-Perah finished.


"On both their parts. Daddy won't have to worry about trouble from Dassenti as long as he doesn't make any public trouble, and Daddy has never been interested in many of the more public crimes that Vedit is infamous for."

"I know. The Three have shut down more than one slavery operation in their time," said Asyra, who was proud of the Syndicates' moderate level of criminal involvement.

In the chronicles to come, it might be questioned how people of such background could be allowed by fate to play such a large role in events. However, it should be noted that through the annals of history in every world, life is replete with examples of good or even heroic people being involved in criminal acts. It is not oxymoronic or hypocritical, it is merely telling of the times.

(For example, on another world, a man named Wyatt Earp, famous for bringing down the worst gang of criminals in his time, who is best known for the shootout in the O.K. Corral, but who in fact preferred to knock people unconscious instead, owned and operated a brothel and casino, both held to be evil by some cultures, while accepted by others. It also isn't widely known that Mother Teresa was into S&M.)

"Daddy must have barely been able to contain himself when this opportunity came."

"I can see him smiling behind his desk, stroking one of his porcelain gold trimmed horse statues."

Perah-Perah shivered at the memory of such tackiness, "Before we shot them," she added quickly.

"He replaced them, remember?"

"Damn. Now I do.... Why do you think Dad wanted us to leave Halffarthing as soon as possible?"

"Over concerned for our safety, as usual."

It was far too late for them to do anything more, and physically Perah-Perah and Asyra couldn't do much more than walk and rub their sore muscles. After a rub down and a bath, everyone turned in for the night. They had already planned what they would do the next day.

Their first stop was Lord Valious the Third, ruler of Halffarthing. It seemed clear he was not involved in the crown conspiracy, but he could still be of use to them if he knew anything about Sephilith. Furthermore, she had promised the Mayor of Merrick that she would give him a full report of what had happened there.

At the gates, the obligatory guards blocked their way, though after informing them as to who they were and what they were doing there, it wasn't long before they were lead inside.

The interior of Valious' castle couldn't have been more different than that of Lady Lassailia's. The walls were grey, and each stone could be clearly seen, cemented together by a dark grey mortar. The walls were not perfectly smooth, either. Each stone was irregular in shape, bumpy and rounded. Rich tapestries hung on the walls, epic and vibrant in feel.

It felt as earthy as Lassailia's was sterile, and as alive as hers was dead. Still, Perah-Perah couldn't help but redecorate it in her head.

They were shown into Valious' lounge room, where he entertained guests. It had a fireplace, a very large bear skin rug, and was well lit and comfortable. Many different chairs of varying degrees of comfort were around the fireplace, as were small round tables to set drinks on.

Lord Valious the Third himself sat in one of the harder looking chairs, going over some reports. He looked up at the girls from them, and gestured for them to take a seat.

Valious was not a handsome man, nor was he ugly. He had a broad grin that suggested a lack of intelligence, but keen eyes that told otherwise. His hair was in a constant state of disarray, so it was fortunate that it wasn't very long. One clump, however, seemed to perpetually be in front of his face and to the right. It was also safe to say his nose was bigger than most women preferred, unless you were familiar with the rumour of what nose size was connected with, in which case it was just right.

There was a rumour that there was some orcish blood in the family line, though this was probably started because of the largish nose. His body was that of a warrior. Muscular, but not so much bulk as to slow him down. Somehow it seemed at odds with is dopy boyish face.

But what he lacked in looks, he made up for in personality.

"Please, sit down. I had enough chairs brought in for everyone. Your wolf may lie on the rug."

"You're not afraid he might attack?" Perah-Perah said with a bit of surprise. Nari was always being left outside for this reason.

The girls found comfortable chairs to sit in, and Nari sat on the rug beside the fireplace. Valious went to scratch Nari's ears, noticed the look Nari gave him, examined it, seemed to determine the wolf's disposition, and pulled his hand back.

"Not really. Besides, even if he did, who do you think killed the bear he's sitting on?"

It really was a big bear.

"Not that I would admit this to my troops, but it was an act of self defense," he added, "Its cub stumbled too close to me, and the mother thought I was a threat. I would have preferred to avoid the conflict altogether. But my men look at it as a trophy of a great hunter, and I would hate to disappoint their image. It's good for morale."

"What about the cub?" asked Soo, with sincere concern.

"A druid friend of mine took him and raised him as an animal companion. Druids have a wonderful way with animals, as good as the Rangers. I suppose they understand nature in its true form, not good or evil, just surviving the best way it can."

Soo couldn't resist her training, deny everything, and took an indignant tone, "But at least Druids are real."

Valious' eyes narrowed slightly, "Oh the Rangers are real, child. And a lot of them are stationed here, keeping an eye on my orcs, though it took my best spies just to come up with that much information. The other counties might discount them as myth, but I don't. And the orcs certainly believe in them. Every missing orc is attributed to the Rangers, though I doubt this is true. It's more likely they hunt those that have gone renegade, trying to start private war bands and go pillaging surrounding villages. In short, returning to the old ways. The orcs fear them, but they may also be responsible for holding the peace as long as it has. Still, I keep an eye on them when I can.

"Anyway, enough about affairs of state. What brings you lovely ladies here?"

Out of anyone else's lips, Perah-Perah would have had an immediate negative reaction to that line. But she sensed only sincerity from him. 'Lovely' was being used as a true adjective rather than a hidden pick up line. And Perah-Perah couldn't fault him for having taste.

"We wished to discuss the matter of Merrick, and hoped you could help us with a little problem of our own."

Valious smiled, "I love a good story, let me have some tea brought up."

The tea was excellent, a local herbal blend, mixed with some dogberries from Dogford up north. They finished their tale, each telling the part that they knew best. Valious frowned.

"The thought of a cult of Dralg existing on my soil is disturbing. I admit, I have had troubles in the past with some of my orcs reviving the practice, but a human and half-elf? It doesn't make sense, unless they originally came from Murhn," he sat and pondered the situation some more. "Of course, I receive the message from Merrick's Mayor a couple of days ago, and have sent men out to investigate, along with my chief cleric. Still, this is more serious than I expected. Thank you for telling me. Now, how can I help you in return?"

Perah-Perah had been thinking about how to word this for some time, "My sister and I are on a mission from my father, and my companions here are assisting us. We have been sent to recover a rare antique, which has fallen into the hands of a rival."

"Ah, the infamous Seren Nydassa hard at work, I see," Valious said with a knowing grin, "I assume your search has lead you to Vedit, what some call the Thieves Guild?"

Perah-Perah nodded, "Yes. We may have lost the trail and hope you can help us find this person."

"If I can't, I'll tell you who can."

"Her name is Sephilith, sometimes called The Fast Hunter."

Valious leaned back in his hard wooden chair, fingers steepled under his nose, "Indeed. I have in fact heard of this woman. Pure blood orc, daughter of a chieftain, but her name was dishonored and disgraced. Her family name, Vess has been stripped from her. She fell in with Vedit and was one of their best operative, but I believe she went freelance, or something like that. We haven't kept track of her specific movements, but last I heard she was on some kind of crusade."

"Crusade?" said Asyra.

"A cult perhaps, maybe tied with the Dralgism you uncovered at Merrick. I'm not entirely sure, but she only works with orcs she trusts and has been trying to gather as many as she could to her cause. However, she dropped out of sight last year, and I had begun to believe she was retired... one way or the other."

Perah-Perah raised an eyebrow, this didn't bode well.

"Might I ask why you wish to find her?"

"As I told you, she has a certain artifact that our father desires."

"Oh, is that all? I though it might have to do with the governments of Scry, Dreet and Lurk mobilizing their armies, though they are going to great lengths not to raise any attention."

This got a visible reaction from Perah-Perah, it was worse than she suspected. "You mean, you're surrounded on all sides?"

Valious' expression turned almost comical, "I'm sorry, did I say they were threatening me? It's not uncommon for Scry to be on manoeuver this time of year, and Dreet and Lurk may have their own reasons. I only said they were mobilizing. But yes, truth be told the though had crossed my mind. I feel I have no choice but to do likewise. Are you sure your little adventure has nothing to do with this?"

"Even if it did, my Lord, I am under strict orders not to discuss it."

A lesser man would have resorted to threats, or inform them that the knowledge he imparted to them already was a favor to be repaid. Valious simply continued to smile his slightly goofy smile and explain things as simply as possible.

"My people rely on me. Humans, Orcs, and even the stray members of other races that have overcome their prejudices and decided to live here. I won't say the orcs here are ideal members of any civilized species, but I will say they don't deserve extermination, if it comes to that. It's not right.

"Since you are not a military tactician, the information I have given you would not be sufficient for an opinion. With that in mind, why don't you answer my previous question through this one, since they're sure to be related: do you think I should mobilize my armies?"

Her father's warning came back to her: get out of Halffarthing as soon as possible. Perah-Perah took note of the group's expressions, indifference from Asyra and Victoria, hidden anger from Soo. Only Rosileen had an attitude of compassion, but then that was her job, wasn't it?

By in large the population of Gassenti would be much happier if the orcs of Halffarthing would just disappear. Maybe it was because they were a grey area in the black and white of good and evil, and nobody liked shades of gray. Perah-Perah thought about her own "gray" lineage, and that was enough for her.

"Lord Valious, I would strongly recommend preparing your men for battle."

On Valious' recommendation, they went to the Speckled Cucumber, a tavern where agents of Vedit were known to hang out. There they hoped to buy further information about Sephilith, and hopefully find out where she was. Caution was needed, however, since she might still be on good terms with Vedit, and when convenient they do protect their own.

The tavern was nothing special, perhaps a little more dimly lit than most, but that was all. Inside were the usual assortment of rogues and merry- makers, and some shady characters playing with coins at a table.

Asyra nodded to her sister, "This is the place."

They took a table nearby those talking and fiddling with their coins. One of them, a gruff looking sailor, had a copper coin, while the other, a flamboyantly dressed fellow with a short sharp pointed beard, had a silver coin. They Syndicate had found that the type of coin used represented a sort of rank or importance, though it was far from absolute. Therefore, they would want to speak with the man with the silver coin.

As usual, Nari had to wait outside, and the sisters didn't want their companions to witness this side of their business, and asked them to ready their horses instead. In all likelihood they would need them once their conversation was over.

The copper coined sailor gruffly stood from his chair, as if challenging for a fight, but backed down and stormed out of the room, tail tucked between his legs. Before the sisters had a chance to stand, they saw the flamboyantly dressed man was already heading for them.

"And is there anything I can do for you, my lovely ladies?" Unlike Valious, "lovely" was definitely being used in its pick up line verb context.

"I'm sorry?" said Perah-Perah feigning ignorance.

"Oh come now, I saw you both looking at me, and it's either because of my overwhelming charm and your desire to sleep with me, or because you are here on business. Either way, my question stands."

Asyra couldn't let that slimy comment go by unchallenged, "Business, I assure you."

Perah-Perah nodded in agreement, "If you will be so kind as to sit down, we would like some information."

"Ah, information is it?" said the man sitting down, "Pity. And the two of you looked so eager."

Perah-Perah dropped the civility, "Can it, or your beard won't be the only thing cut short."

The man raised his hands defensively, "My apologies. I meant no offence. You must realize when in a place like this, anything is possible."

"Of course,"_Perah-Perah said, her business tone returning like it never left, "Now, the information we want is about a person."

"A person, hmmm? That depends, where is this person supposed to be?"

"Here in Halffarthing."



"Oh, I don't deal with orcs much, but might still be able to help. Do you have a name?"

"Sephilith Vess, the Fast Hunter."

The man's jolly eyes grew wide for a moment with terror, then turned calm but serious, "I'm afraid don't know much."

"Your body language tells me otherwise."

The man stood up abruptly and came over to Perah-Perah, where he whispered in her ear, "I would suggest you don't go near her. Her life is now forfeit and she has run east as quickly as possible. I would suggest you run west."

With that he left, with a graceful bow and a slight spring in his step.

As they left the tavern it started to drizzle, "Well that wasn't helpful," said Perah-Perah with a slight scowl. Nari got up and followed alongside.

From her pocket, Asyra took out a local map, "Perhaps it was," she said, "according to this there is only one main road east. We could still catch up to her."

"Perhaps, but we don't know where she's going."

Asyra thought about it, "Well, where did the King Faustus die? Where did the battle take place?"

Perah-Perah recalled her history, "Outside of Dogford Proper."

"And the legends say that the crown cannot be removed except by a descendant of the wearer or the wearer themself. Now, since there are no legends of someone carrying away the head of Faustus the Last, it would stand to reason it is still somewhere in Dogford. So she will be heading there."

"But not by horse the whole way I'm sure, she's going the wrong way.... a boat! She might take a cargo ship that's heading that way!"

"There's a lot of ifs here, like assuming she's as eager to find this as everyone else, but yes, that sounds right."

Perah-Perah patted her sister on the back, "Yes, but it's all we've got. Let's go. I'll pay the stable hand to speed things up and..."


Perah-Perah was padding her belt area, "That bloody thief! He stole my coin purse!" Asyra almost smiled, but Perah-Perah's expression kept her face straight as she continued to rant, "He's on The List, I tell you. He is definitely on The List."

"You don't even know his name."

"I know his face. That's enough."

Somewhere, a lone thief should be very frightened, and considering inflicting horrible scars upon his face.

It didn't take Soo and the others to get their horses and mule ready, and waiting around for the sisters was getting old fast.

"Why don't we grab a drink," said Rosileen, "If they're successful, it might be the last chance we have for a while. I'll buy you a mug of ale."

"Can I have some ale, too?" squeaked Soo.

"No, you're too young for alcohol." said Victoria.

"What are you talking about, I'm thirty-five, OW! Thirty, OW! Twenty-five, OW, that's really starting to hurt! Twen-OW! Okay! Okay! I'm fifteen!"

Rosileen twirled her staff deftly in one hand and placed it firmly in the ground, "As your spiritual advisor, I strongly suggest you avoid lying in the future."

"Well, can I at least have some milk?"

"Yes," said Rosileen warmly, "and I'm buying."

The bar was called Rhymes With Lookers, and was half-bar, half-brothel. But one that catered to more educated and wealthy clientele, which was obvious because it was the only bar whose name was written instead of depicted by an obvious caricature. Ordinary people would have walked right on by if it weren't for the giggles.

Inside, it was a clean and well kept bar, but on many a rich looking lap sat many an expensive looking person. The three girls sat down at the bar and tried not to attract attention. At the far end the stage held some activity as an act prepared to play.

"What'll it be, my pretties?" a haggard crone said, her head barely peeking over the table.

Rosileen spoke up, the two were almost eye level, "A milk for the child and two ales for us."

From the other end of the bar there was a rattle of a tambourine, a strum of a lute and the piping of a flute with a strangely familiar tune.

"Hello Halffarthing Proper!!!" a loud yet melodic voice boomed. There was a hail of applause and cheers. Victoria sank in her stool.

"Better make that whiskey. Straight."

Perah-Perah and Asyra caught up with the others outside of Rhymes with Lookers, and it was obvious to everyone that Victoria was drunk, and possibly ready to throw up. Loud lively music boomed from inside.

"Thaa couuda bin me, ya know... Victoooria an duh Vanguard..."

Asyra watched Rosileen pat a consoling hand on the despondent woman's back, "What is she talking about?"

Rosileen continued patting her back, "Hear that music?"

"Yes," said Asyra, and suddenly realized the sounds were quite familiar to her.

"They're called The Vanguard, and Victoria here used to be the lead singer and writer. She went solo just before they became the biggest hit on Gassenti."

"Vanguard! No wonder I recognized the music, their my fav-" Asyra stopped short when she saw Victoria's blood-shot tear-stained face, "I mean, I've never heard of them."

"Neither have I!" said Soo helpfully, telling the truth for once.

Perah-Perah leaned over to her sister and whispered, "Aren't they the band you took me to see last month?" Asyra nodded. Perah-Perah was somewhat impressed, "They were pretty good."

"Guud?" said a drunken Victoria with a surprisingly good sense of hearing, "Theyrrre frickin' Greeeeaaat. Duh most popular ack sin' duh Bremorrrian Trubadourrrs. Evvvreyone with duh money wan dem to play. An I coulda been duh lead... it couldda bin me... not him..."

Perah-Perah, though not unsympathetic, quickly grew tired of her self-pity. She looked to Rosileen, "We have to leave as soon as possible and need her sober, is there anything you can do?"

"Well, alcohol is a minor poison, I might be able to neutralize the effects. If not, some hot coffee and soaking her head in cold water is all I can think of."

"Get on it, good cleric, time is short."

In the end they had to almost tie her to her horse, just in case. Victoria claimed to be sober, but either the coffee or the spell had left her a bit wobbly. Once they were confident she could at least keep up with them in a stiff canter, they were off.

Of course, Rosileen's annoyed little mule, Ben, had to work double time just to keep up. They tried to make things easier by distributing his saddle bags among the other horses, but his little legs just weren't cut out for constant running.

They were well out of Halffarthing Proper before the sun set and had to set up camp. Victoria's hangover was kicking in early, and with nothing else to do but wait around a dying campfire, the sisters were eager to find out more of her story.

Victoria reluctantly agreed, "What the hell, it's not like it's a secret anymore," she grumbled.

"It was all because of a guy. The new lead singer of the Vanguard, Myron. He was my backup singer, my friend, and occasionally more than that. We were doing fairly well, steady gigs across the island, but little notoriety. Then one day, in what I thought was a profound moment of honesty, Myron convinced me that I deserved more, that the only reason I wasn't famous was because the Vanguard weren't good enough. It seems so silly now, but at the time I believed him, sometimes my ego gets the best of me. He might have even used a charm spell on me, the sneaky little bastard."

"What do you mean?" said Soo, "He lied?"

Victoria smirked, "You would know best. Yes, he lied. Apparently the Vanguard's songs had grown in popularity slowly but surely, kind of reaching into the culture and subtly changing it to fit the music. Kind of a grass-roots movement.

"However, in order to truly make it big, the Vanguard needed funding, advertising, promotion, and there was a guy from Teal who was more than happy to help."

"I'm sorry," said Perah-Perah, "did you say a GUY from Teal?"

Victoria nodded, "Yes, an escapee who make it rich as a merchant, so you can understand that he doesn't exactly hold women in high regard. He made a private deal with Myron. If I left the band, he would finance the Vanguard's career, and Myron could be the new lead singer."

"And he was your friend?" said Perah-Perah.

"Better people have done worth things to their friends for far less. As far as a bard's life goes, he was offering Myron everything he'd ever wanted. All he had to do was stab one friend in the back. Besides, by now I'm sure he's eased his nagging conscience and believes he did me a favor, gave me a chance to grow and find myself or some crap."

Asyra nodded as she turned over some hot coals in the fire, "I can see why you'd be upset."

"Oh, it gets better than that. I wrote every song they sing, but if I ever use the popular ones in public, I get labeled as a hack. Now I have to come up with all new material, get some new players, and try again..." her voice trailed off, and the others were silent. Eventually she spoke up again, "I just feel robbed."

"You were robbed," said Perah-Perah, "I'd say you're entitled to a share of their profits."

"Yeah, as if I could get it."

Perah-Perah shrugged, "Remember, I know people. You've been an asset to the group. When this is all over, I'll see what I can do."

Victoria was stunned, "Thanks, Perah-Perah."

"Minus a reasonable finders fee, of course."

"Oh... of course."