Sunday, June 12

The Argument

The sun had set by the time I got this far. I was on deck, but I couldn't sleep. I have too much to say, too much to think about, and I'm not ready to go back to the cabin yet. In spite of the demand that there be no open fires or lights on the ship, there are lanterns, well confined and actually ringed with jugs of water, at the bow and rear of the ship. I'm at the back of the boat now, pressed close to one to catch the light. I can just make out the ship's wake in the black water below. It feels appropriate, like there are shadows all around me. I feel so far from home. And now, for the first time, I really feel alone. I am forced to admit that some of the things Gloria said to me this afternoon were right. I'm not as strong as I should be. I lack the willpower to be a proper lady. But I have will enough to see this through, to find out what is wrong with me, with or without her watching over my shoulder. She was wrong, too. I'm not a monster, and neither is her brother. I'll prove it to her, one of these days. There is a Halfling expression that all things can be set to right by wearing the hat of your enemy. (Halflings don't wear shoes, and thus can't walk a mile in them.) I don't believe it's true anymore. I understand Gloria better than I ever have before, and she understands me, but we haven't gained anything. We've only fallen apart.
I managed to find Gloria on the docks. She was surprised to see me back so soon. At first, I didn't quite know what to say. I was angry, irrationally angry. I realize that, after the fact, but then, I was too focused on my rage, over everything she had done in the last week. I felt so, I don't know, powerless over my whole situation. I'm 16, but I've never had anything like freedom. I've always been watched over by someone, someone's always made my decisions for me. It wasn't even my idea to study there, it was the only alternative I had 'for my own safety.' And to top it all off, once I'm finally here on my own, Gloria picks up Mother and Grandmother's slack, telling me what to do and when. No one even told me what was REALLY going on, just treating me like a child! I told her exactly how I felt about her, and she acted surprised, hurt. She became angry that I didn't appreciate what she had done. I told her that I already had a big sister, that I wanted a friend. The boat arrived, and we boarded. The argument continued back to our cabin. It got worse, if anything once we were away from her friends. Then, we both said a few things we'll never get back. I'm not repeating them here. I had my book in my satchel, and my extra cloak, so I went out on deck, "to get some air."
It was out on deck that I unavoidably ran into Gloria's friends Corrina and Hilda. They asked me what was wrong, and I just cracked. I broke down crying in Corrina's stiff, surprised arms, and she reassured me awkwardly. Hilda punched me in the face. Not slapped, punched. I think it was a Dwarven thing. Dwarves have a very egalitarian society. They don't draw very many gender distinctions, and the women are just as physically capable as the men, in every capacity. Even the language only differentiates between the two in very formal situations. I think the consequence of it is that Hilda doesn't get much of a chance to be feminine. It must be strange for her to be in human society. Or maybe not. At least she doesn't have the expectation of being a 'good girl' weighing her down. And she had just punched me.
"Are you done?" She asked through her thin beard. Her thick accent brought her voice lower than it should sound, I think, and now I wonder if she doesn't have expectations on her after all. Maybe she's free to be a girl here, now that she is in a place with gender roles. I had stopped crying. "Now, what's this all about, then?"
We sat down on some crates of supplies, and I told them both the whole story, minus the specifics of what happened in the hill, of course. They don't need to know about, well, my condition. I made sure they understood though. Hilda spoke first.
"You are right," she said. "But so is she." I started to protest, but she raised her hand. "Let me finish, lass. I don't know much about human customs, and less about halfling ones. that's one of the reason's I've been sent here. To learn about the surface-folk. But your grandparents were, battle-brothers, if not in ceremony than surely in spirit. And that is a sacred bond, deeper still than I think either of you realize." I could do little but nod. But Corrine did interrupt.
"They aren't Dwarves. Don't push your beliefs on them." The two of them fell to, well, not arguing, but debating between themselves.
"This is not a Dwarf matter. This is a matter of family."
"Family..." Corrine tasted the word. "Forgive me if I don't share your romantic notions, since mine tried to sell me to a brothel."
"You can't forgive your parents, can you?" the Dwarf asked.
"Of course I can't. I'd rather die than be used like that."
"So it would have been better to starve, then?"
"Don't think like they did it for my sake. They were only thinking of their own bellies. And Gloria's just happy because she needs to be praised."
"Do not go too far, Corrine."
"Oh, I'm sick of her power trips, and it's time somebody said something. Gloria's such a genius, Gloria's so pretty, Gloria's such a caring older sister. Listen, Lizzeth." She took me by the shoulder. "The only person you can be really sure of is yourself. Don't forget it."
"I won't," I said. Hilda looked at the two of us very sternly.
"That aside, you should make up with Gloria. I agree that she needs to give you more credit than she has, but the two of you have been friends for too long to let a petty difference such as this come between you."
"Petty?" I asked, but she cut me off.
"I am quite certain that she considers you family, and is motivated primarily out of concern. It will not be impossible to address her on your own terms. But for now, I would give her time, and space. Think clearly, and a solution will present itself by morning. I am sure of it." I nodded, and thanked, her. It was good advice.
I bid them good night, and headed to the other side of the ship. A few of the other passengers were already stretched out, but it had been well circulated that we were with the mages, and they gave me a wide berth. No one wanted to wake up as a frog, I guess. In the morning, I'll go talk to her again, and apologize. I'm sure this will work itself out, and if it doesn't, there will be a whole city between us, I'm sure.
In any case, I'm not going back into the cabin tonight. Not while she's there. We should reach the city tomorrow. Actually, it might be today by now. I, for one, will be glad to finally be someplace. The traffic on the river is starting to pick up some more, and there are lots of lights in the distance. Ahead of us is the city, I guess. The lights behind are getting closer, too. We must be reaching the harbor. The boats are getting closer, and I can see their lights. They aren't little lanterns like this ship, either. Most of them have actual bonfires on board. I wonder how (page ends)


So much has happened today! I'll try to go as far as I can, but it's going to be difficult. I need to get it into words before I figure out what to do next, so I'll write until the light goes. We'll be docking in Carabos tomorrow, I think. What happens then, I wonder. In any case, I suppose the only thing for it is to start at the beginning. It started with the announcement.
Just as I was finishing up part three of Grandfather's story, one of the crew began ringing a bell on deck. I gathered with the rest of the passengers to hear what the announcement was. We would soon be arriving at Lockhill. The boat turned away from the fast-moving river, and into the shipping canal as he was speaking. The next bit of news was what was really exciting. Not only would those leaving at Lockhill be able to get off of the boat, but since the boat is going to be waiting for a while to go through the locks, and the deck very busy, passengers were encouraged to disembark and visit the town.
It's a pleasant enough little place, dwarfed by nature and the canal it supplied. Maduin High Falls are still quite a few miles away, but far in the distance the plumes of water can be seen. Supposedly, the high towers of Carabos have a great view of them on a clear day. Even though that area is so close to Carabos, and such a scenic wonder, It's apparently pretty lawless right now. The Wars pushed the Carabian military to it's breaking-point, just like every other nation, and when they weren't paid what they were promised, the conscripts took the forts as payment instead. Carabos has been whittled down to a city-state, turning inward as a place of learning. Even Lockhill is barely connected to the Gnomish Capital, taking a lion's share of the levies on river traffic for itself. The City gets by on the magic trade, but I wonder if it'll hold out.
In any case, the city is mostly sized for the Gnomes that live there, with a few buidings in the entertainment district sized larger. There's a row of taverns, inn and what I'm fairly certain is a brothel, right on the main street, along with a few inns and general stores. There's a sizable theatre as well. It takes about an hour for a boat to go through all four locks, not counting the line, and the inspections. It looks like we'll be here most of the afternoon. I took a look down at the first lock, a long, empty trench with a little water at the bottom. There are gates on the side that let in water, or take it away down a second channel. That water goes down to a water wheel that provides power for the different factories and mills in town. On top of the lock, Gnomish engineers ran to and fro, tying lines and supervising the equipment. Gloria came up and joined me at the railing. After looking down and telling me to be careful, like I was just a little kid, she said that all the heavy lifting was done by golems in a big room underground. The sides were all a smooth white surface that wasn't quite stone. You can find it here and there in very old buildings up in Lythia, but I've only ever seen it with big cracks and patches in it. The Gnomes call it "concrete," and it's their special building secret. Dwarves dig in stone, and Elves are masters of lumber. The Halflings know clay and brick better than everyone else, and the orcs prefer to live in animal-skin tents. Humans use a little bit of everything. I've never seen a construction this size before, though. Supposedly, everything in Carabos is like this. I can't wait to get there.
We still had a few hours to kill, so I wanted to check out the theatre, but Gloria would have none of it. I had thought I had finally gotten a chance to relax on my own, with Mr. K not really being the watchful type, and Magus Ceylon having hysterics in his cabin, but no. The closer we get to Carabos, the more overprotective and bossy Gloria gets. So she pushed me away from the locks, and through the town shopping. We didn't actually get anything, of course, but it was fun to look through the stores, I guess. There was a really nice cloak I was tempted to get. It was reversible, all weather, and I think a little magicked, but Gloria gave me this look, and told me not to waste my money on it. There's a long semester ahead of us, and we have to make our supplies last. She reminded me that we should eat while we're in town, and we headed to a little teashoppe she had heard of.
Right from the start, I cannot think of a more tragically reputable establishment. It didn't look like the sort of place that served alchohol, much less hosted barfights. Definitely not the point of refuge of innocent maidens on the run from evil. I doubt a bandit could find the place with a spyglass. First of all, it was Pink. REALLY pink. Pink walls, pink roof, pink door. Rows of lovely pink flowers in spotless beds out front. Pink stones lining the path up the tiny, but immaculately cut lawn. Disgustingly, boringly pink. And everything that wasn't pink, was lavender! I felt like an idiot just walking in. This wasn't where two dangerous young ladies on an adventure dined on the road.
Gloria assured me that the food, which was the important thing, was of the highest quality, as well as quantity, so I sighed and headed on inside. It was just as bad on the inside. There were doilies EVERYWHERE. I will admit that I am a bit of a tomboy city-girl. I'll admit to a bit of a wild streak, and I've never been one to behave and stay quiet, but this place would have turned anyone's hair gray. Lace curtains, etc. You get the idea. I was beginning to realize that I had perhaps misjudged Gloria's taste, if she was taking me to a place like this. Gloria was already headed to a table. I recognized a few of the faces there from the boat as Gloria's new friends.
I looked past them, and I saw, of all people, Periel the magnificent seated at the corner table. He was conversing with a beautiful woman. She was tall, with long, blond locks, and her ears were long and somehow gracefully pointed, as though her face had been sculpted rather than grown. I wonder if she was be an elf. They were whispering, and I admit that I tried to listen in, but either he had cast a spell, or I was just too far away, and I couldn't hear a thing over the chatter in the restaurant. I shrugged, and followed Gloria, already deep in conversation at the table.
I was introduced all around. There were four of them, coming from all over, each of them different, but fast becoming friends. I've never made friends easily. I've always been an outsider. I was instantly jealous of Gloria for her ability to socialize.
Corrina was the first. She's a human from the borderlands, and she's as tough as they come, by the look of her. She's a year older than me, and she's off to seek her fortune. Her parents were going to sell her off to pay their debts! I was thunderstruck when I heard that. I can't imagine a parent doing something like that, no matter how desperate things became. So she scraped what she could, and somehow made her way onto the ship. She's going to start a new life in Carabos, or maybe stop there for a while, and drift. She hasn't decided yet. I kind of envy her but at the same time I completely don't.
Melody is a Gnome on pilgrimage. She is going to be a musician, and she's coming to Carabos to study at the Bardic College. Bards are strange folk. They study lore, like wizards, but not the arcane. They learn about songs, and stories, and history. And one in a thousand becomes great enough that their songs have a magic all their own. She is beautiful, and her voice is great. She already showed she's been studying, and told a wonderful story about a fisherman. It's apparently from her home village, out east.
Tina is a trader's daughter, like me. She's part elf, and she's on her way to be apprenticed in her Uncle's shop. It's not something she would be allowed to do in her home, I guess, but she's vague on where she's originally from. I've heard of half-elves in stories, of course, but I've never actually seen one. They say that a human and an elf fall in love maybe once in a lifetime. A human lifetime, that is. She's very quiet.
Hilda is from Paladine, and she is a stout and somewhat dour Dwarf-maid. She's a junior priestess, just finished with her training at the tender age of fifty. She's being sent to preach serve as a Handmaiden in Molem's Temple of the Illuminated Will in Carabos. The Dwarf God and the Gnome God are allies from ancient days. The temple in Carabos is the most magnificent outside of the mountains. It is a high honor to serve there, and it is a heavy responsibility. She bears it well.
The five of them talked, and laughed and planed their futures in the city. I was included in it, though treated as Gloria's 'little sister.' I grinned, and shruged, and generally stayed quiet. Eventually, the food arrived: Sweet, black tea and a huge stack of pancakes with strawberries. I dug in gratefully. Honestly, I was glad to have something to do that prevented me from talking. They were all nice girls, but I just wasn't comfortable, for some reason. Maybe it was because my suspicions about Gloria's attitude were being proven true. THe raven pendant in my pocket seemed all the heavier at that moment.
The food was just as good as promised, though. In the far corner, the mysterious woman stood, her business with the mage apparently concluded. As she rose, he reached into thin air and pulled out a card, which he presented to her with a seated bow. Her lip curled in almost a smile, or maybe a sneer, and she left quickly. I admit I was a bit in awe of her as she walked past. She seemed so, I don't know, forceful. The magician sat looking out the window. Once she is fully gone, his face fell, as though it was a mask of good humor he was wearing.
A bell rang in town. A crier announced our ship will be leaving the channel soon, and Gloria and the girls settled the bill. I told them I would catch up.
I hung back to speak with the magician. His table was in a quiet corner, and he sat nursing his tea and looking worried.
"Excuse me," I said. It startled him. "May I sit here for a moment?" He looked at me with these sad, shining eyes, and said "of course." I took her seat.
"I saw you on the boat, but I wasn't sure how to approach you."
"Approach me? Why?" He asks. I'm embarrassed by the answer, but I decided to be honest with him.
"Well, someday I'd like to be a magician like you." I said.
"Well, a cute face like yours would surely bring in the marks," he said.
"Marks?" I asked
"Oh, you know, crowds, customers."
"Right. But I don't know if I can do it. I'll wash out for sure."
"Wash out?" He looked puzzled for a minute, as if he didn't understand the concept. A great, traveling magician like him must be unaccustomed to failure. "Oh, right," he said at last. "Well, there are three things you need to succeed in this business: Patience, Practice, and Confidence. If you focus and train, take your opportunities when they come, and believe in yourself, you'll see your name in lights one of these days." It was good advice. I memorized it.
"Thanks for that," I said. "I saw you a few days ago in (name of town). You were really great!"
"Oh..." he looked concerned for a second, but I don't know why. Then the smile came back, officious as ever. "It was a good crowd for the Wake this year."
"Wake?" I asked.
"Yes, the Halfling Wake, which you were at." He gave me a strange look.
"I've never heard it called that before," I said.
"Oh, yes. It's a fine old tradition. The road's a dangerous place. That's why they have the blessing and the feast. Didn't you go up to the hilltop shrine for the ceremony?" I thought back to the service, the way she had given a blessing in the quick, high Halfling tounge. I nodded. "Well, you've already had last rites, in case you meet with accident or murder out on the highway." A living funeral, a feast of sorrow not for those that had gone, but for those who would not be coming back. And they had hidden it from me, like I was a child, still a little girl. Gloria knew, and she hadn't told me. Even she hadn't trusted me to accept that kind of danger. She's handling me with kid-gloves, like she treats her brother. I was wrong to think that things were getting better between us. Not when she hid this from me. I stood up, nearly knocking over the chair in my haste.
"I have to go," I said. I ran out of the teashoppe without looking back at his expression. I was being rude, I know, to a man of considerable power. But I was flush with rage. Why hadn't they told me the truth?

The Tale of the Magic Crossbow pt. III: The Cursed Ones

In keeping with Mr. K's suggestion, I'm going to keep on telling Grandfather's stories, but I'm changing up the format a bit. If I'm cataloguing them, I should treat them more seriously. So, I'm going to abandon the bedtime story format and just concentrate on the facts, as I know them.
When last I wrote of them, Joachim, Glory, and Rose had entered the Ironwood Forest. Rose was leading them, with the purpose of disarming the many traps and pitfalls that the Wood Elves had set up to protect their haven, although they hadn't managed to protect it from underneath. Glory and Rose weren't so disturbed by the dark. Their people had eyes better suited for the lack of light. Joachim was human, so he had to light his way.
He pulled a device from his pack. It was a leather and glass tube, about a foot in length, called a sun rod. He twisted the leather thong in the middle, and there was a crunch of something brittle breaking. The strange, alchemic fluids in the tubes met, and reacted, making the rod glow brightly, or at least it should have. The eldritch spell of darkness robbed even the device of some of its brilliance. Still, it was enough to see by.
"Put that out!" Rose whispered with a hiss. "Do you want the Drow to see us coming?"
"Better they see the light than they hear me trip over every root and break every fallen twig between here and their camp," Joachim replied. "Take point, we're right behind you." Rose stiffened, unused to taking orders from a human. Her elven ears twitched, trying to catch some tiny sound on the cold breeze perhaps, and she started forward without a word. Glory shrugged and fell in behind her. He took up the rear.
For a few minutes, they walked in silence, save for the occasional warning from Rose to avoid a certain long, or to point out a pitfall hidden in the undergrowth. The group managed to avoid any patrols. In fact, they walked for a long time without seeing anyone. Rose claimed that she knew every inch of the forest, and they believed her, but as they walked, the fact that something wasn't right settled upon them. When she felt confident enough, Glory hung back to consult with her partner.
"Something isn't right here," she whispered.
"So you noticed, too" Joachim replied.
"Yes. I suspected it before we entered, but that business with the torch confirms it."
"Wait, the torch? What do you mean?" He asked.
"Yes... wait, what do you mean?" Glory stopped.
"You first."
"Fine. That's not a magical item, is it."
"The sun rod? Of course not. It's just a fire. It's all chemicals. Take a look." He brandished the device for her to get a closer look.
"I already am," she said, and he noticed for the first time that her eyes had the faint, violet glow they took on whenever she examined things of the magical spectrum. "The torch shouldn't be working, but it is. There's something off about this darkness spell."
"Go on."
"Well, do you remember the Splinterbone Catacombs? When we had to fight that warlock?"
"Of course, when he scuppered, he called down that cloud of darkness. It took hours to find our way out of it. Even that dwarf was running into the walls... Oh, I see."
"Exactly. If this really were a darkness spell, it would be solid. My night-vision wouldn't be effective, and your torch wouldn't do any good at all."
"So it's not magic after all?" He trusted her judgement. Glory's expertise had saved them on a number of occasions.
"No, it is. This whole place is so filled with magic that I can barely see. It's even drowning out your spear, it's so thick. But it's not dark, it's more like, I don't know, night, somehow. I've never seen a spell do something like this before."
"Any ideas what could cause it?"
"Well, I can't say. It could be very, very powerful time magic, or weather magic, I suppose. It's like the whole sky is frozen above us. It could be a ritual or an artifact I've never heard of. It could be anything. I can't wait to find out."
"Well, whatever it is, spell or machine, or what not, you can figure it out after I break it."
"You do love smashing other people's toys, don't you Vernes?" Her tone was slightly colder. It was an old argument.
"Well," he considered, "mostly these 'toys' were horrible things sent to kill me, so I don't feel so bad about it. And besides, you'd think that poor old Bindle would be your top priority."
"Bindle?" She asked, puzzled.
"You do recall your poor, punctured, boyfriend, I hope." Joachim said sarcastically. The tone was getting heated.
"Of course, of course. But if this is some lost magic, it would be quite a boon. I could get tenure in Carabos for something like that." Her voice fell again.
"Who knows if you'll get your chance. I don't think Rose is leading us on a rescue mission."
"What makes you say that?" Glory asked.
"Well, for one thing, she's given us the slip." Glory looked around. It was true. Rose had disappeared while they were arguing.
"Well...I'm sure she's just gone ahead. Maybe she didn't see us slow down?"
"No, Glory, just no. You might know your magic, but I know people, and something about this stunk the moment we took it. Now I know what. Trust me, there'll be a horde of monsters just beyond that riiioh..." Joachim stepped forward,and found his foot squarely in the middle of a hidden noose. Before he had time to pull it back, He was swinging upward by his right ankle. In that moment, his arms flailed, and he dropped his torch. Fortunately, he was quicker to catch his spear, as it fell from the holder on his pack. He was about to cut himself loose, when he looked down and saw just how high off the ground he was. Then, he reconsidered.
Somehow, the sunrod had managed to avoid serious damage in the fall, and illuminated a small circle below. On the ground, Glory stood looking up at him, and laughing.
"Hilarious," Joachim said blankly. "You wouldn't have happened to prepare a slow falling spell, would you?"
"I've got a potion for it."
"Well, I don't think that's going to help me, Glory." Joachim began to feel giddy from the blood rushing to his head. Glory stepped gingerly around the smoking brush, and set her pack down on a patch of clear ground. It was muddy from the lack of light, but she didn't seem to notice.
"I still have that levitation scroll in here somewhere. I'll guide you down." She rummaged through the bag, and eventually pulled out a battered scroll case. While she was searching, Joachim reached down with the spear tip. It would be close, but he could just reach. Out in the forest, a twig snapped.
"Hold on, I've got it right here..." There was another snap, closer. "Fireball, grease, haste, ooh!" There was the sound of something climbing a tree, followed by the crash of a branch. Whatever it was, it was large. It sounded as though an army was marching through, and it was very close now.
"Do you have it? I hear something out there."
"No, I just found a lightning bolt. I thought I used up of those. Here it is. Are you ready?" Glory looked up from her pack, and at... something in front of her. She froze. Joachim tried to twist his body to get a better look, but he couldn't make out anything outside the tiny circle of dying flames. A large, impossible shadow descended upon Glory, and she screamed. Almost immediately, her cry became a chant, and, and she gestured, completing a spell just in time. From underneath the monstrous shadow's bulk, Joachim faintly heard the word 'haste,' and the spell was cast. There was a blur, presumably glory, her enchanted dagger cutting a trail of fire through beast and air, that came bounding from below, and off into the woods. Bellowing with rage, the injured thing lumbered after her. Joachim watched it skitter, seemingly too quickly, on four pairs of horrible, oddly bending spider legs, and then the clearing was quiet again.
He felt a weight settle on the branch his trap hung from, almost imperceptibly, then lift again, in silence. There was a second one, or the first had doubled back? In a moment, his question was answered as the creature slid into his field of vision, and he found himself staring into a cruel and familiar face. He had seen it, the night before in the tavern, although the addition of a pair of wickedly curved, jutting fangs had been the least of the changes that had ocurred to her. She was still dressed in the remnants of her garb from the night before, although it was badly torn and ripped. Her hands had changed like her face. Her fingers now ending in sharp talons. But it was her legs that had truly been changed. Her waist was the last part of her that could be considered humanoid, as her jet-black skin now transitioned smoothly to the hard, shiny carapace of a black widow spider. Eight huge legs tensed on nothing, and she swung from a thin, white strand of spider-silk. She looked at him with fierce hatred in her eyes, and growled a low curse in a tongue that was far removed from the graceful Elven languages it was derived from. She lashed out quickly, using both her claws. One, Joachim managed to block with his buckler, but the other reached past it, digging trough his armor and into the soft flesh of his shoulder.
Joachim sighed, and brought his short spear around, cutting through the monster's web line as well as the rope. He kicked out, connecting with his free leg squarely in what he supposed was the thorax. There was a slight crunch, and she howled in rage. Finally, he was at least facing upwards, but the ground was coming up fast, and she clawed at him, as though killing him was far more important than saving herself. He only had one chance, and she would hardly cooperate. He readied the and drove it deep into her chest, just as the forest floor rose to meet them. There was a shock of contact, and what he was sure was a broken arm. The wound on his shoulder burned, more than it should have, and he realized that it must have been poisonous. The thing, whatever it was, screamed, and fell dead. Joachim sunk down on the grass beside it, careful to avoid the leaking ichor, and saw to his wounds.
His chain was rent in a huge gash at his left shoulder. That arm was already starting to go numb, either from some natural poison, or something she had dipped her talons in. With his right, he reached into his pack and pulled out a green glass vial marked with a heart. With great care, he poured a small measure on his wound, which smoked, but where he left it, there was fresh, healed skin. He sighed, and replaced what was left of the potion.
With great effort, he rose one-handed to his feet, while his left arm hung paralyzed. At least, he thought, the poison doesn't seem to be spreading further. He headed wearily off in the direction that he thought Glory had fled in. Eventually, she found him.
"Are you alright?" He asked.
"Fine, fine. A little poisoned."
"A little?"
"It's a light paralytic. It just needs time to work it's way through. How did you do?"
"Alright. Whatever spell protection they had yesterday, the metamorphosis stripped them of it, so I managed to make short work of it, once I extrapolated the data."
"Right, right. But why change them into monsters that are weaker than their original shapes?"
"Drow culture is reclusive and mysterious. From the fragments I understand, I would hazard a guess that they were not mutated by choice, or to hunt us."
"Go on."
"There is scant information on the Drow available outside of the Underdark, but I do recall glancing at an old tome concerning their diety: Lolth, the Entrapping One. She is a devil of such power that not only does she gain worship from mortals of the dark realms, but she has enough power survive outside of the complex hierarchy the other denizens of her plane partake in. The only other Pit Lord of that caliber is Tiamat."
"Impressive, but how does that relate to those two trackers?"
"Well, the book describes a variety of rituals available to Lolth's servants. Some transformations grant enormous power, and others are terrible curses. What we fought today were 'Driders.' cursed to take the shape of half-drow, half-monsterous spider for failure in service. I would imagine that by failing to kill or capture us the night before, they were forced into a new shape, and exiled." They got up, and headed deeper into the forest, away from the cursed bodies.
"They failed last night because Rose used her daylight spell." Joachim said slowly. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Why not. It validates the fact that Rose did not in fact, turn against us."
"No, Glory. Just no. Trust me, she ditched us. You may know every run or whatnot, but I know people. And I know when we've been betrayed. It just makes the game more complicated."
"In that, you would be correct, human." The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, and suddenly, the forest was full of Drow warriors. Their leader was a woman. She was beautiful, but terrible in aspect, as though she were carved of obsidian. Her long, white hair flowed like fine silk, and her eyes were a rich, blood red. She was a warrior in black leather armor, reinforced with white, spidery carvings in bone. In her left hand she carried a weapon, a crossbow as beautiful and deadly as she was herself. The weapon was carved from midnight wood, and embellished with truesilver that shone like stars.
She held in her right was a length of chain, and Joachim saw Rose handcuffed at the end of it. She had been beaten herself, quite badly, by the look of it. The Drow pulled her forward, without seeming effort. Rose stumbled. Her captor sneered at her cruelly. "We sent the little worm to bring you here, to find a mighty wizard for us to sacrifice to the Night Stone. In that she has done well. So, in spite of her... disloyalty," the leader said, stretching the word as though savoring it. "We shall sacrifice no more of our lesser sylvan sisters." She marched slowly, up to Glory, slinging the crossbow onto her back, and reaching out to touch her. Glory backed up, and poured quick, pure fire out of her stretched fingers, engulfing the clearing in flame and smoke. There was a high, cold, throaty laugh from the Drow commander.
"You are a strong one." There was a note of surprised in her voice. "Yes, you will do nicely indeed. Take her!" She called to her guards. She and Joachim readied their weapons, but the Drow were legion, and before long, they were prisoners.

Talking With Mr. K

The Magus is still hiding in his cabin, so Gloria and I have the day off. I did some snooping around after breakfast, and I found out what Mr, K does all day. He sketches. It's amazing to watch him work, although at first I'm sure he knew I wasn't there. He has a little easel set up at the other end of the ship, and he draws the scenery as we pass it. The speed and precision of his technique are impressive.
My dad commissioned a family portrait once, and it was horrible. The painter took forever and we had to stand there all day as he captured all the little details. I bothered him while he was working later, and he showed me how it had been done. He broke us all down into little shapes and drew them separately, one after the other, until the geometry disappeared, and we became the whole picture. It was really interesting to watch. What Mr. K did was nothing like that. He didn't draw shapes to make the landscape, he just transfered it. He started at the top-left corner of a page, and worked steadily up and down it in quick strokes of his arm, so fast that I could barely see it. And every line was perfect, like it was second nature to him. And when he was finished, it wasn't like a sketch so much as an illusion. I could see every single detail captured perfectly in lead and paper. He should have been an artist instead of a teacher. I told him so, and he jumped. He chided me for sneaking up on him.
I sat down beside him, and we watched the mangroves pass. The river there was swampy and desolate. I said so, and he laughed, softly.
"What's so funny," I asked.
"Oh, it's just a human foible. There's more life out there than in any of the human or dwarven cities, but you say 'desolate.'
"Well, it's not a city or anything, it's all giant lizards and stuff, right?"
"Stuff. There's a small tribe of Lizardmen out there, and some goblin nests further from the river. They all mostly keep to themselves. So you are from Lithia, yes?"
"No, well, originally, I'm from Hydraal. My grandfather was a great hero in the Orc wars, before the, you know, the big one."
"Really? He was a soldier?"
"Not officially. He was a wandering swordsman. That's actually how Gloria and I know each other. Her grandmother and my grandfather were cohorts."
"Really? Most of what I know of Magus Boflin is from her brief stint as a professor. What was your grandfather's name?"
"Joachim Vernes. He was know as Dragon-Talker Vernes, and he carried a magic spear carved from a gold dragon's fang."
"He was a dragon lord, that's passing rare, in a human." He was genuinely surprised. Maybe he wasn't a dragon in human shape, if he didn't know that.
"Well, I don't really know the details. It's not one of the stories he told often. As I understand it, in his early adventures, he protected a clutch of eggs from orc patrols in the high mountains. That is how he earned the their respect, and his signature weapon. I've been writing about his adventures a lot lately."
"Why is that?"
"Oh, homesickness I guess. In the battle against the bandits, my father was using one of grandpa's weapons, so I've been thinking about the stories."
"I would love to hear it, if you wouldn't mind."
"Really? Well, alright." We sat and talked all through the morning. Really, mostly I talked. I told him about the magic crossbow, and the dark elves, and their plans to block out the sun.
"So they had a shadowstone." He said when I had finished. "It was a lucky thing that they stopped them. The whole world could have been swallowed by the shadow plane with one of that size, given enough time.
"The shadow plane? What's that?" I asked.
"Oh, this is advanced, planar geography, but I'll try and explain simply." He turned to a new page in his text book and sketched a great circle, with a smaller one inside it. "In the first age, their was the material world," he said, tapping the central circle. "And there was the Spirit World, which surrounded, bound and existed just beyond the world we know. All things, all spirits and magic creatures, existed in the Spirit world. Then, the Golden Age ended. The Old Gods, died, or vanished, or ceased to be. The legends differed. What we do know isat the strain of the end cracked the heavens themselves, and the Spirit World, dissolved into the many and different planes." He sketched a few lines, and the outer circle was cut like a pie. Now, there are many different planes of existence beyond the physical: Realms of fire, and endless oceans with no surface. Heavens and hells, each one different. And on some of them, the new gods dwell, and dictate their will. Do you follow?"
"Yes, I said."
"Good. Now it gets tricky. Some of these realms touch the material at different times, and three of them, the Astral, the Etherial, and the Shadow, can be easily reached from our world. They are the gateways to the planes beyond, like paths, or seas."
"So the cloud of darkness was the shadow plane?"
"Not exactly. The stone was a solid chunk of shadow matter. Normally, planar matterial can't exist on our world. It's too different, or it has too much energy, and explodes. They had managed to get some stable, and they were using it to copy the traits of the shadow onto the material. If they had succeeded, then they could have conceivably merged the two together, destroying the earth, but making the shadow plane that much greater. Who knows what could have happened. Your grandfather was truly a great hero for saving the world. Do you know many of his adventures?"
"Some of them. He told them to me as bedtime stories, so I think he cleaned them up a great deal."
"Even so, I think you should keep at it, Lizzeth. Write them down. I can't think of anything as sad as a story that becomes lost forever. History, and geography. These are the focus of stories, and stories drive them. Do you understand?"
"I think so," I said.
"Excellent. I very much would consider it a personal favor if you would tell them to me some time." And that is how I have become my grandfather's biographer. When we get to port, I desperately need to write my father a letter.

The Sealed Door

We're still traveling down the river, but the weather is slowly getting better. We stopped again at a town while we were sleeping, and a whole bunch of the passengers got off. It's still crowded, but not so bad now. Magus Celon spent all the rest of the afternoon and evening in his cabin, and at dinner Mr. K told us to leave him be. When the magus saw that ruined old tower, he went white as a sheet. I asked Mr. K about the ruins, and I expected him to tell me not to worry as he watched Gloria and I eat our bread and cheese. Instead, he told us a story.
As he told us about it, something softened in his face. He's such a cold person, it's easier to think he's not human, and I assumed that he would be a bad teacher, but this was different. He doesn't deal with people well, but he's passionate about history. I'll try and reproduce the history of this place, as neatly as I can.
The tower has existed for as long as anyone can remember. Records of the site, according to Mr. K, date to the beginning of the Second Age, and even then, the tower had been ruined. Whatever purpose it held was lost during the Fall of the Old Gods. That means it was probably a temple or some other religious building that was forgotten by the Risen Gods, but the truth of the matter is still unknown.
The interesting thing about the building is that no one has ever fully explored the structure. The stones above, which are stronger than they appear, and still bear mysterious enchantments, eventually lead the visitor to a single door, marked with the rune of the Prime Magister! This door is taller than two men, and just as wide. It is carved of stone, all in one piece, and doesn't have a lock or a keyhole. And no one in the world has ever been able to open it. There are many different theories about what is there, and what could be behind it. That would explain why everyone was so excited. The Prime Magister invented most spells and magical artifacts. He's a hero so ancient and famous that he commands almost as much respect among humans as the god Hattori himself! They say that he hid his greatest secrets, in his grimoire, away when he died. Somewhere, out in the world, his canon is waiting to be rediscovered.
Mr. K would have liked to have stopped the boat to explore, but with that many passengers, even day-trippers paying with copper, the captain wouldn't do it, so he made what notes he could. I wonder if Mr. K has a bit of an adventurer in him?
As for the reason Magus Celon became so upset, even Mr. K doesn't know. He just said that elven memories are long, and their moods are changeable. He advised us to leave the mage be and enjoy the river trip. Even though the "mortal" histories of the first age are mostly lost, it is said that the elves considered the Prime Magister a dangerous villain. No one outside the Green Kingdoms knows why, though. The elves know more secrets than the gnomes, but they keep them close to their hearts.