Cythera Chronicles: The Hand of Fate

  • Part 1 - The First Word of Fate

    by iKaterei


    "Oh, pleeeeeease, can't I go with Father? Please, Mum?" Little Danaos looked up at his mother imploringly. "I love going hunting with Father! And he said he's not going far. Can I go, can I go?"

    Faïyen looked down at her six-year son kindly. "No, Danaos, I need you around here. You went hunting with your father last week, anyway."

    The corners of Danaos' mouth began to curve down in a disappointed frown. "Aww, why not, Mum?"

    "Because I said so," Faïyen replied firmly and turned back to the wooden table, resuming her work of kneading the dough for the day's bread. "Now go watch your sister."

    Danaos scowled. "C'mon, Adaina." He gestured to his younger sister. "Let's go watch Father outside."

    He took Adaina's hand and led her out the door. Their father was feeding their unicorn in the paddock nearby. The unicorn, a chestnut-coloured mare, was snorting and champing her bit. Danaos' father had caught and tamed her as a foal many years ago, and now used her as a pack animal. He gripped the halter tightly and laid a hand on the mare's back to calm it. As he turned to lead her to the manger, he noticed Danaos and Adaina standing at the edge of the paddock and smiled.

    After settling the mare down, he walked over, reached across the fence and picked up Adaina. The young girl had only recently learned to walk. Her father beamed down at the small, dark-haired girl. "Hello, Adaina. Did you two come out to see me?"

    Staring up at her father silently, Adaina nodded, sucking on a few fingers.

    Danaos tugged on his father's sleeve. "Father, Mum said I'm not allowed to go hunting with you. But I really, really want to! Can you ask her if I'm allowed?"

    Taj Lykaon grinned and laid a large hand on his son's shoulder. He was tall and stolid, and an excellent swordsman with a good reputation around the land. Yet nothing made him happier than his wife Faïyen and his two young children.

    "She won't, eh? Well, I'll talk to her, don't worry." Taj chuckled. "Besides, you're a good help when I'm hunting. Come on, let's go inside." He carried Adaina out of the paddock, Danaos tagging along behind.

    Faïyen glanced up as her family came in the door. "Taj, you've come to convince me to let Danaos go hunting. Am I right?"

    Taj carefully set Adaina down on the wooden floor and smiled at his wife. "Of course I have. Faïyen, I think you know me too well."

    She sighed in mock annoyance, shaking a finger at Danaos. "All right, then, you're allowed to go. But you'd better keep that tunic clean while you're out. I'm not washing it again!"

    "Yay!" Danaos exclaimed, delighted. "Thanks, Mum!" He turned back towards the door, ready to go outside, but Faïyen caught hold of his tunic and stopped him.

    "Hold on, you little rascal!" she commanded. "You haven't eaten anything yet. Neither have you, Taj. Come eat some breakfast before you go."

    Faïyen had difficulty settling Danaos down enough to eat his breakfast. The young boy loved spending time with his father, especially hunting. Taj would take out his heavy sword with its leather sheath, strap the belt around his waist, and sometimes, if Danaos was lucky, he would be permitted to carry the long, thin hunting blade.

    After a good deal of time and effort on Faïyen's part, Danaos finished his breakfast and waited for his father to finish the preparations. It didn't take long and soon they were setting out to the west, in the direction of the river. Taj was planning on getting a titan, although Danaos was personally hoping for a unicorn. He shared this thought with his father as they opened the gate leading from the yard to the road outside.

    Taj ruffled his son's hair. "Well, I'm not sure on a unicorn this time. Titans give a lot more meat. But we'll see about that when we get to the river. Anyway, my son, have you been practicing with your sword recently?"

    "Yup, I have," Danaos replied happily. "But Mum has to keep Adaina in the house when I do, so she doesn't wander too close, so I can't practice too much."

    For his sixth birthday, Taj had given his son a small shortsword to practice with. Taj was eager to share his skill of melee weapons with his first and only son, and he figured that you were never to young to learn. Too weak to wield a sword, maybe, but not too young.

    He glanced down at Danaos, with his blond hair, tanned skin, dusty feet and muddy tunic. A better son could not be asked for, but Taj wondered about him sometimes. Would he become a mercenary like Taj had been, before he settled down with a wife? He hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps, but there was no guarantee. Danaos might decide to become a smith, a merchant, a guard- or maybe he would leave Cademia altogether and travel.

    "Hey! Father! I think I saw something moving in the bushes, over there!" Danaos ran up the dirt road towards the shrubbery he had been pointing at. They caught a glimpse of something dashing through the bushes, and then it was gone.

    Taj laughed and followed, a bit slower. "Well, whatever it was, you scared it off, little rascal!"

    Danaos turned to his father sheepishly. "What do you think it was?"

    "Probably a ratlizard," Taj mused, studying the bushes. "It seemed pretty small. Nothing worth hunting anyway."

    "Oh. Well, are we going to go find a titan, then?"

    "I suppose we are." Taj ran a hand through his blond hair thoughtfully, and smiled to himself. There was no need to worry about Danaos' future, at least not yet. There were still many years to come.

    Six years later...

    Twelve-year-old Danaos stood outside the cottage and watched his father strapping the saddlebags onto their pack-unicorn. He sighed and peered back through the open doorway behind him. Inside the cottage, his mother Faïyen was preparing a haversack of food. Nine-year-old Adaina was leaning against the door frame, fiddling with a lock of her long, raven-coloured hair.

    Taj Lykaon straightened up and looked at his two children. He smiled wearily. "Behave yourself while I'm gone, you two. Danaos, you're going to be responsible for providing meat while I'm gone. I hope you remember what I've taught you."

    "Yes, I do," Danaos nodded. "Don't worry about us; we'll be fine."

    "If anybody should be worried about, it's going to be you, Father," Adaina said darkly. "I know you go into town a lot, but not on errands like this."

    Danaos turned to Adaina, annoyed. "I'm sure Father will be fine. Cademia is perfectly safe as long as you stay away from the slums."

    Adaina scowled at her older brother, but said nothing. She had learned long ago not to press arguments like these. Danaos knew just as well as she did that this was no ordinary journey into Cademia, the closest city to them, but he didn't want to admit it.

    "I do not fear for my safety, Adaina." Taj smiled at his young daughter. "And I should only be gone for a few days; five at the most. Even if I am sent off on a mission, I shall have to come back. I have not packed much, and the unicorn is not fit for a long journey. Do not spend time worrying about me."

    Sighing, the dark-haired girl nodded and receded into the cottage, treading across the thick oak floor. She always walked barefoot, except in winter, so the soles of her feet were hard and tough. Her long, turquoise skirt brushed the floor and scattered the dust, sending it swirling into the air.

    Faïyen absently looked up from her work as her daughter entered. "Adaina, could you sweep the floor later? It's getting dirty again... and here, take this out to your father."

    She handed Adaina a burlap haversack, full of provisions. It took nearly a day and a half to travel from their cottage to Cademia, and Taj didn't want to stop and hunt on the way. Adaina took the sack and carried it back outside to her father, who then put it inside one of the saddlebags.

    Danaos watched impassively as his father bridled the six-legged unicorn and tied it to the fence post. He had always marvelled at how well trained the unicorn was, compared to the wild creatures that he hunted with his father. It rarely tried to escape, never attacked anyone, and usually let people ride it. Yet now, Danaos was preoccupied and did not notice how well the unicorn was behaving.

    None of them knew why Taj was being summoned to Cademia. It was less than a week ago that the courier had come to their cottage near the forests, looking for Taj. It was certainly no messenger of the Tyrant; rather, it was one from the Cademia guilds. Their cottage was rather distant from the city, and few people ever strayed so far from the safety of civilization. The only explanation given was that somebody wanted to hire Taj as a mercenary. While he had technically dropped the profession several years ago, they still needed an income which unicorn-fur trading could not provide. So Taj had agreed to come to Cademia.

    Of all four, though, the surprise seemed to have hit young Adaina the hardest. She wasn't used to the idea of living without her father nearby, and although he had promised to be back within a week, Adaina knew that he would not be staying long. A mercenary could never stay in one place very long.

    It had only been six days since the courier came; the courier that would change Taj's future forever...

    Gripping her bundle of sticks tightly, Adaina straightened up and looked at the forest around her. A sparrow fluttered across the path, squawking noisily. She turned to watch it, and caught another movement out of the corner of her eye.

    A man dressed all in black and scarlet. Adaina didn't know much about the Cademia guilds, but she did know enough to recognize him as one of the explorers-for-hire.

    She eyed him suspiciously. "Hello. May I inquire as to why you're this far out in the middle of nowhere?"

    He was straightforward in getting his point across, nothing subtle about him. "I am looking for the mercenary, Taj Lykaon. Do you happen to know where I could possibly find him?"

    Adaina almost dropped her firewood in surprise, but regained her composure quickly. "I do. But I shall not lead you to him unless you first tell me who you are, and what your business is with him. A visitor, even an explorer such as yourself, is uncommon in these parts of Cythera, and surely you understand my need to be wary."

    The man studied the dark-haired girl intently, searching her face for traces of dishonesty. He found none. "Very well. My name is not important, though; I am simply a courier from Cademia, and I bear a message for him. He is wanted there, for an important meeting. Yet I must make haste. Will you trust me, and bring me to Taj Lykaon?"

    "Yes, I will." Adaina nodded slowly. "I am Adaina Lykaon, and Taj is my father. Our cottage is not far from here. Follow me." She led him back down the pathway, glancing back every now and then to keep an eye on him- to make sure he didn't get lost of course, but as well, she didn't wholly trust him.

    Taj had been outside in the yard, cleaning a wolflizard that he had caught early that morning. Adaina was used to the repulsive smell, but the courier wrinkled his nose and made sure not to stand too close to the carcass. Adaina had to struggle to hold back a smirk.

    Holding a hand to his brow to block out the blinding sunlight, Taj stood up and looked at the newcomer. "Greetings, friend. I am Taj Lykaon. What is your business, this far away from your city?"

    "I come bearing a message for you, from my guild in Cademia. I am an exploring mercenary. There have been some... troubles, recently." He paused and looked pointedly at Adaina, who scowled at him, but took the hint and carried her firewood over to the other side of the house.

    The courier turned back to Taj, lowering his voice. "You have been requested to attend a meeting of my guild in Cademia. It is being held in seven days from now, and we wish for no delays. I cannot yet explain why- even I, being of a lower rank, have been told very little. For now, I shall simply tell you that it is a type of mercenary work, but a task of great importance. Will you attend?"

    Taj was curious, but refrained from asking the details. "I will try my best to attend this meeting, but of course, nothing is guaranteed. Where in Cademia should I go to?"

    "I will be waiting for you at the south gates of the city, with other members of my guild," the courier said without hesitation. "Now I must bid you farewell, Taj Lykaon. May good fortune follow your paths."

    "And the same to you. Farewell." Taj nodded to him.

    With that, the Cademia courier exited through the gate and set off down the path.

    Taj sighed and looked up at the cottage. He had built it himself, with the assistance of a few friends, many years ago. It had wooden planks laid down for a floor, sealed tightly with clay to keep out the damp. The walls were thick boards, painted white to match the fence, with windows facing the east and west to let the sun in. The roof was thatch.

    Both of his children had grown up in this house, and had no memories of living anywhere else. In his heart, Taj knew that once he came back from Cademia and set off again on a mission, it could be a long time until he saw this cottage again.

    Faïyen came outside, and she came over to the gate where Taj was standing with Danaos and Adaina. The unicorn was standing calmly, with its bridle and saddlebags on.

    Taj kissed his wife and hugged his two children. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Remember what I told you, Danaos."

    He mounted the unicorn, looked back at his house and family, then slapped the unicorn's rump and Taj Lykaon set off on a journey to remember.

    A man dressed in the traditional explorer's guild garb greeted Taj at the south gates of Cademia. He introduced himself as Hyllos. It was not the courier who had come to find Taj, and when inquired about, Hyllos would only say that he had been delayed.

    After Taj dismounted from his unicorn, Hyllos silently led Taj towards the tall, iron gates, and the guard beckoned them through. Taj was surprised that they trusted him so easily. Although Hyllos had probably come out of Cademia and stayed where the guards could see him, it was not likely that they knew who Taj was.

    Obviously Hyllos realized Taj's curiosity at this, because after they passed through the gates he bowed his head and said in a low voice, "Our guild has several, ah, acquaintances throughout Cademia. Due to their trust, we can get other people- unknown people- around without too many problems."

    Taj didn't think this to be much of an explanation, but he decided not to press the subject. Silently, he followed Hyllos through the streets. Fortunately, no one took much note of them.

    They stopped in front of a group of stabling pens on the outskirts of the city. Hyllos took the reins from Taj and led the unicorn into a pen, where he tied it up. "Your unicorn will be fine here," Hyllos said quietly. "These pens belong to my guild, and any guild member can stable an animal here, no questions asked."

    With that, they left the stables and continued down the streets of Cademia. Many times before, Taj had been in Cademia, but now he was being led to an area that he didn't recognize. He figured it must be where Hyllos' guild was located. Within minutes, though, Hyllos had stopped in front of a tall, brick building and began unlocking a door, all the while watching their surroundings furtively.

    Hyllos led Taj inside the building. Taj found himself in a dim, shadowy corridor, lit only by a few torches on the wall. The floor was stone, but covered in a thick layer of dust. The building seemed not to have been used in a long time.

    Upon receiving a questioning glance from Taj, Hyllos offered an explanation. "This is the old meeting hall for my guild. It isn't used much anymore- only in important situations, such as these. Everyone else is inside, waiting."

    Taj nodded, and followed him down the corridor. They passed several shut doors and other, smaller corridors as they went, but Hyllos ignored all of them. The whole building was silent. Aside from the two of them, it seemed completely empty.

    Finally the corridor ended, and Taj found himself standing in front of a set of heavy oak doors. From the opposite side, he thought he could hear faint voices. Taj pushed the door open, his curiosity aroused.

    The door creaked as it swung open and Taj was met with the sight of an immense stone room, with a domed ceiling. His attention was caught by a massive wooden table in the centre of the room, which was surrounded by chairs. Less than half of them were filled, but everyone seated there was dressed in the same black and scarlet garb as Hyllos- obviously members of the explorer's guild. The sight was, on the whole, really quite impressive.

    The man at the head of the table rose when he saw Taj and Hyllos enter, and spoke. "Taj Lykaon. So you have come."

    Taj nodded. "I told your courier that I would do my best to come, and I follow through with my promises."

    "That is well. Your faith may prove useful. Come, join our council. We have much to discuss with you."

    Taj and Hyllos took seats at the table's end nearest to them. Taj could not help but feel uncomfortable at these strange turns of events, and his hand automatically went to the leather sheath at his waist.

    The man who had spoken, and was obviously leader of the guild, turned to face Taj. "My name is Nikias Arren. I am sorry that our courier, Briarios, was not there to meet you at the gates as he said." A grave expression came over Nikias' face. "Briarios was taken by surprise as he travelled, and killed by an arrow. We did not know if he had reached you."

    "Yes, a courier found my daughter in the woods near our house last week, and she led him to me." Taj frowned. "He did not tell his name, however, and left very suddenly before I had thought to accompany him back through the forest."

    Nikias sighed. "It cannot be helped. But now, the reason we have summoned you here. I am sure that you, being a mercenary for so long, have heard of Abydos?"

    "Abydos?" Taj looked at Nikias sharply. "I have heard of it, a long time ago, yet I myself have never been there and have naught to tell of its current state."

    "Nor have we, my friend, and that is precisely why you are here." He studied the expression on Taj's face, but could read nothing but confusion. "As you most likely know, we are a guild of explorers for hire. Yet we, too, have our own business that is completely separate from being hired by anyone.

    "Several messengers have been sent to Abydos over the past months. None have returned. It is intended to be hidden, of course, so we expected it t be rather difficult for our messengers. But there is no trace of them at all. We suspect that they have all been killed."

    "I can understand your concern, Nikias," Taj interrupted him. "But I do not see how I am at all relevant to this situation."

    "It is obvious that our couriers cannot reach Abydos by normal means. That, Taj Lykaon, is where you come in." Nikias looked at him pointedly.

    "Do you mean to send me to Abydos, to investigate it?" Taj said incredulously.

    "You have to understand that we are a guild of explorers, not warriors," another member of the council said earnestly. "None of us are suited to such a task."

    Nikias nodded. "Yes, Khariklo is right. We needed a warrior; somebody strong enough to withstand whatever is killing off our couriers."

    Taj rose from his seat, astounded. "You want to send me to Abydos! Do you honestly think that I could fight all of them? I know what mages are like, Nikias Arren, and they are dangerous. You may have never met one, since most have become hidden, concealing their powers from the Tyrant. But I know one, and they are not people that I wish to meddle with, not in the least."

    "I am aware that it would indeed be a dangerous situation. But you must at least listen to our reasoning, and understand the importance of this." Nikias looked around gravely before continuing. "An offshoot of a school of mages; hidden from not only the Tyrant, but the rest of Cythera. They send no messengers out, and none go in. Many people do not even know that Abydos exists. Surely a hidden mage city can mean nothing but danger for the rest of Cythera. We do not ask you to enter the city, not even to attack anything or anyone. We only need somebody who will investigate it. Take along some companions, if you wish."

    Sighing inwardly, Taj looked around at the council. It was true; Abydos may be a threat to the other cities of Cythera. He ran a hand through his blond hair thoughtfully. "I understand your reasoning, but can you give me an incentive to go?"

    Nikias glanced briefly at the members of his guild. "You have my word that, if you return from this quest, you will become an honorary member of our guild. That means that, as long as you are in Cademia, you will have access to our halls, and friends outside of our guild will recognize you as one of us and allow you passage."

    "I rarely come into Cademia nowadays. Do not busy yourself with such as making me an 'honorary member'. I see by your offer, though, that you are trustworthy. As a matter of fact, I need no more incentive to go than to guarantee the safety of my family and my city. I shall not consider this your quest; for it is under my responsibility, and therefore is to be considered my quest."

    A relieved smile crossed Nikias' face. He had obviously been worrying about the outcome of this council. "As you wish. I appreciate you doing this for us, Taj Lykaon. If there is anything we can ever do to assist you..."

    Taj nodded. "Yes, yes, I'll keep that in mind. Now, when do you want me to leave? I was planning on returning to my house for a few days, but that may not be feasible."

    "As soon as possible, we were hoping," another guild member spoke up. The voice was tense. Taj was slightly surprised to see that the speaker was female. "This isn't really something that can wait."

    Hyllos, who had not spoken until that point, leaned over and whispered to Taj. "Laodameia's husband was one of the messengers sent out. She's been having a rough time since then, because they're all rumoured to be dead."

    "Then I shall set out tomorrow morning, to Abydos," Taj declared. "Before then, though, I have some business to do. There is only one person who I would trust to come with me on this quest- my friend Tanuin Erwye."

    "I shall send a member of my guild to go with you around town," Nikias told him, "and later on to arrange housing for tonight. And remember, Taj Lykaon-" and here Nikias looked at Taj very intently- "remember that no matter the cost, news of this quest must not reach the Tyrant."

    Taj nodded, showing he understood. "Yes, I am aware how dangerous it could be if the Tyrant found out. Are you sure that he still does not know of Pnyx or Abydos?"

    "Quite sure. Trust me, if the Tyrant knew, neither place would exist for long- unless I am severely underestimating the mages. But as for now, this council shall be brought to a close. Thank you."

    He gestured, and every member of the council rose. Taj followed suit. Many people immediately headed towards the door and filed out, but some lingered, wanting to speak to Nikias.

    Unsure of what he was supposed to do now, Taj waited uncomfortably for Nikias to finish. He did not have to wait long; apparently Nikias wanted to speak to Taj and was hurrying with everyone else.

    Nikias finished his business, looked around, and gestured over a young man, probably around eighteen, whom he led over to Taj. "This is Keyx. His father, Ekhemos, was a high-ranking member of our guild. Keyx, I'd like you to accompany our friend around Cademia- if I understand correctly, he needs to contact somebody within the city. Lodgings can be arranged in the training barracks; Rheia will understand. Oh, and make sure he knows where the stables are so he can get his unicorn later. I'll be in to check on you later, Taj. If I'm not... well, good luck." There seemed to be a trace of hesitation on his face, but it disappeared almost instantly. "I must go now."

    "May good fortune follow your path," Taj murmured, remembering the phrase that Briarios the courier had used.

    "And the same to you both." Nikias smiled briefly, then turned and left the nearly empty meeting chamber.

    Keyx turned to face Taj. "So, they chose you to send out. Well, better somebody who's equipped with a weapon than equipped with a message, in this case." He had a grim smile spread across his hardened face as he glanced down at the long sheath hanging at Taj's hip. "And you look better prepared than most people around here are. The others... they don't know what it's like."

    Taj didn't even have to ask to know what Keyx meant. He'd been a swordsman for long enough to know. "You've already seen more than most will in their lifetime. They should be glad that they don't know."

    "Laodameia's husband was only one of many. Nikias told you that my father was a high-ranking member of this guild, but he did not tell you all." Keyx's voice shook with anger. "Ekhemos, my father, was an honourable man- an asset to our guild. He did not like fighting and so became an explorer instead. But then they sent him to Abydos. He- he never came back. Taj Lykaon, I know you consider this to be your quest now, but I ask of you- do this also to honour Ekhemos."

    "I sympathize your pain. Many of my relatives before me were mercenaries, and it was while on a mission that they met their death. I have become used to the pain. But to somebody not used to it..." Taj's face softened. "Yes, Keyx, I will do my best to honour your father."

    Keyx reached out and clasped Taj's hand. "Thank you. I can tell already that you are going to succeed."

    "Nothing is guaranteed yet, Keyx. But right now, I have to find my friend Tanuin Erwye, and speak to her. I do not know my way around Cademia, but I am sure you do. Would you be willing to assist me?"

    "I will." Keyx's anger seemed to have subsided. "That is what Nikias appointed me to do. Follow me."

    He beckoned to Taj, and led him out into the stone corridor again. It was now completely empty, because people had been slowly filtering out as Keyx and Taj were speaking, so they quickly made their way down the long corridor. Taj was glad when they reached the end, and he stepped out into the bright sunlight, blinking. Such a change from the eerie torch light.

    "Do you know what area of Cademia your friend Tanuin lives in?" Keyx inquired.

    "Well, I have not seen her in many years. But if I remember correctly, she took up a job as a scribe for the tailor Xanthos," Taj said thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, I don't know where his shop is."

    "I do, or at least, I know the general area. It's north of here, near the city walls. I expect that she would live somewhere near there. Come; we shall search for this Tanuin."

    Keyx immediately set off in the direction of the northern city walls. Taj had a little difficulty keeping up with Keyx's fast-paced walk, but he managed. Evidently Keyx had a lot of experience as a courier, judging by his stamina.

    Soon they found themselves in an area that was considerably less crowded than the rest of Cademia had been. At most there were less than ten other people on that particular street. Taj looked around, slightly suspicious. "It's quiet here. Not like it was near your guild."

    "It's probably always like this," Keyx shrugged. "Nothing here seems amiss, at any rate. Don't worry about it. Our guild is located in one of the busiest areas of town, anyway, and not only people of our guild- which is quite unfortunate when you're dealing with things that you don't want the public to find out about."

    Taj decided not to argue, and turned instead to the problem of finding Tanuin. "Do you know where Xanthos' shop is located? I imagine there'd be a sign somewhere near it. If we can find Xanthos, then he ought to know where Tanuin is living, or at the very least, where we can find her."

    "There isn't actually a tailor's guild here in Cademia, so it could be anywhere. I rarely come here. I do know that it'll be somewhere near here, though, and ought not to be very difficult to locate."

    They walked down the street, studying the buildings that they passed. None of the signs mentioned Xanthos. When they reached the spot where the road crossed with another, Taj stopped. "I don't know how long this is going to take, and I expect Nikias will be coming to look for me tonight."

    Keyx looked at Taj expectantly. "Your point?"

    In answer, Taj stopped a brunette female who was passing by. "Excuse me, ma'am, but could you please direct us to Xanthos the tailor's shop?"

    She looked at Taj questioningly, but refrained from asking. "Yes, you'll have to turn left here, and follow that road. It's just down there, not far at all."

    Taj nodded. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, and the woman continued on her way.

    "Now, why didn't I think of that?" Keyx sighed.

    "No idea. But there's no time for you to stop and ponder. Come on." Following the woman's instructions, he led the way down the road in the direction of Xanthos' shop.

    It was not long before they came to a building, where a sign out front read, "Xanthos' Tailor Shop." Taj and Keyx went in and looked around. They were in a dim, low-ceilinged room. Various items of clothing were hung up on the walls, and a long low counter ran across the front of the room.

    A short man with a wiry moustache bustled in from a hallway just off the room they were standing in. "Oh, are you here to pick something up? If not, then you'll have to wait a moment... I'm in the process of measuring somebody else in the back room." He gestured towards the hallway through which he had entered, then suddenly stopped and took a second glance at the swordsman and guild member. "Never mind. You're here on different business; that much is obvious."

    "Are you Xanthos?" Keyx inquired.

    "Yes, that would be me. Can I help you?"

    Taj stepped forward. "Tanuin Erwye- is she working for you still?"

    Xanthos looked surprised. "Yes, I get her to write everything up for me; she's my scribe, you see. You're lucky, she's just getting ready to leave right now. Why do you ask?"

    "We're, uh, old friends, just looking for her again," Keyx said quickly. Taj nodded at him; they both knew that it wouldn't do to explain why they were looking for Tanuin.

    "Well, I'll go get her, then. Just a moment." Xanthos left the same way he'd come.

    "Trusting, isn't he?" Keyx whispered. Taj didn't respond.

    Xanthos returned in a moment. A tall woman with reddish-blonde hair was following him. Her face broke into a wide grin when she recognized her friend.

    "Taj Lykaon!" she exclaimed. "Of all the people to come visit, you've got to be the least expected! Now, I'm sure you'll have plenty to tell me about your adventures, which is good, because I haven't anything interesting to tell." She laughed slightly, then turned back to Xanthos. "I finished copying out that scroll for you; it's on the counter. I'll be back tomorrow to see you, if you have anything else for me to do."

    "Very well. Farewell, you three," Xanthos added, and quickly retreated into the corridor again.

    "Strange man," Tanuin murmured. "Likes to talk, but doesn't like people that he thinks to be intimidating." She glanced Taj over. "Like you. Xanthos gave me a job, though, and that's what I needed, considering that..." she trailed off, suddenly noticing Keyx. "Well, you know," she added hastily. "Come on, I shan't leave you standing. I'll take you to my house. Small, but comfortable. It's not far either."

    Tanuin smiled and led the two men out the door. Less than ten minutes later they were standing in front of a large rooming house. Tanuin led them inside and up a flight of stairs, and unlocked one of the doors in the corridor.

    It was definitely small, but big enough for one person, Taj decided. Several bookcases were up against the walls, and were full of thick (and old) books. A wooden table occupied the centre of the room.

    "Have a seat," Tanuin invited them. Taj and Keyx sat down; Keyx a bit more tentatively. Tanuin sat down facing them. "So, first of all, who is your friend, Taj?"

    "This is Keyx, a member of the explorer's guild. The reason he's here is the same as the reason I'm here."

    Tanuin nodded. "I had a feeling you weren't back in Cademia for just any old reason, but I didn't want to mention it while Xanthos was near." Her voice lowered. "He's a good man, but I wouldn't trust him with much. So, you've got to tell me now that you're here. What's all this about, coming and finding me at work, with a guild member accompanying you?"

    Keyx looked slightly insulted, but a glare from Taj kept him from commenting. "It's a long story, actually..." Taj took a deep breath and proceeded to quietly explain to Tanuin all about his quest, from Briarios coming out to his house in the wilderness, up to the point of them finding her in Xanthos' shop.

    With a stunned expression on her face, Tanuin leaned back in her chair and looked at Keyx. "So your guild has appointed Taj to travel to Abydos, and investigate it?"

    "Not quite," Keyx frowned. "We asked your friend Taj to do it, and he agreed. He also said that he wanted to take you with him, if you will accept."

    "Yes, and to ask your advice on it," Taj said. "I know you've already settled down here, Tanuin, but so had I- and that is the problem." He rose from his seat and paced back and forth, musing to himself. "We're not meant to settle down. We're wanderers. Why else would we be sent out on this?"

    Tanuin sighed, and strode over to her bookshelf. "Abydos, Abydos," she murmured, searching through the rows of leather-bound books. "I'm sure I have a book on it somewhere. Hard to acquire, those ones are."

    Keyx studied Tanuin thoughtfully. "Not many people keep such extensive collections of books in their house. You could almost make a library out of this all."

    Tanuin sighed again, and pushed the book she had been holding back into its proper place. "There's a very good reason that I own these books, my friend." She looked Keyx straight in the eye, an intense expression on her pale-skinned face. "It may not be wise of me to tell you this. But the reason I had to take such a low-ranking job, the reason I know Taj Lykaon, the reason I own so many books- is because I, Tanuin Erwye, am one of the hidden mages of Cythera."

    The early morning light streaming through the window cast beautiful, flickering rainbows across the barrack walls. Taj involuntarily squinted his eyes shut against the harsh light, but the action was futile. He was fully awake within a minute.

    "Cursed dawn sunlight," Taj muttered to himself as he rose and strapped the sheath of his sword onto his belt. For the main part, the barracks was empty. A few male adolescents were down at the far end- it was, after all, a training barracks. Rheia, the elderly woman who ran the barracks, was nowhere to be seen.

    Making sure he hadn't left anything behind, Taj straightened up the bed he had been given and went outside. His eyes had adjusted to the light now, and looking around, he saw Nikias striding towards him.

    Taj met him in the middle of the road, and carefully avoiding the eyes of passers-by while at the same time acting casual, they began walking to the main guild hall. Keyx had informed Taj that the hall used the previous day was only for special occasions; almost everything else took place in the main hall, so that's where they were headed. They walked in silence, all too aware of the prying eyes and ears of unknown people, until they had reached the doors of the hall and entered. Safe from being overheard, Nikias turned to Taj.

    "So, are you ready to leave soon?" he inquired.

    "Yes, I made contact with my friend Tanuin Erwye, and she has agreed to come with me. I'll go to her house soon to fetch her, and we shall set off before noon." Taj sighed quietly. "I was hoping to return to my house, at least for a short while, but I suppose it can't be helped."

    Nikias glanced around before replying. "If you wish, I shall send another courier to your wife, to inform her of your quest. Oh, and yesterday, did Keyx show you to the stables again?"

    "No, I asked him not to bother, for I am not planning on taking my unicorn. It's not suited for long journeys any more, and I would not have it carry anything, either. We must travel light if we want to travel quickly."

    "That is wise," Nikias nodded. "Make haste, but be wary, as well. We have no idea what you might find in Abydos, but whatever you find, it is very likely to be dangerous."

    "I know, and so does Tanuin. We will return as soon as we can with news."

    "Are you sure that you can trust her?" Nikias asked warily. "I know she is your friend, but we are dealing with important and confidential matters. Only as many people as necessary should be told."

    "I would trust Tanuin Erwye with my life. Even when no other would stand by my side and fight, she would be there," Taj replied calmly. "And out of many, she would be the best of defenses. I am not sure if Keyx has told you yet- he may not have- but Tanuin is a mage."

    "A mage!" Nikias sputtered, aghast. "You're taking a mage with you! But you said yourself that you knew what mages were like, and that they were dangerous. And more so," he hissed, "you know how much the Tyrant despises mages. If anybody finds out!"

    Taj had expected that; Keyx's reaction to the news had been similar. "And that, Nikias Arren, is why nobody else will find out, as long as you and Keyx do not tell them. You see, that is partly why I chose Tanuin to accompany me. I shall fight fire with fire, as it is said- a mage versus the Abydos mages."

    "Not even the best of mages could stand up to that," Nikias protested indignantly. "What if you are caught? A swordsman and a mage cannot possibly expect to hold off an entire city of mages."

    "Ah, but you didn't know that she was a mage before, did you? And then you didn't complain." Taj smiled inwardly to himself.

    Nikias blinked in surprise. His argument was defeated, and he sighed. "I apologize. Mages are nearly always considered to be untrustworthy and dangerous, though, and are generally avoided at all costs- even if your friend is not like that."

    "I would have thought that a guild leader such as yourself would be above the influence of the Tyrant," Taj said mildly.

    "It is not only the Tyrant that fears and despises the mages," Nikias scowled. "You would be hard-pressed to find another person who willingly befriends a mage, excepting the people of Pnyx and Abydos themselves."

    "I have faith in Tanuin Erwye." Taj turned away and stared at the hangings upon the wall, deep in thought. Presently he looked back at Nikias. "Is everything settled, then? If so, I shall go and retrieve Tanuin now. My anxiety will not allow me to wait any longer."

    "Very well," Nikias said. His voice seemed heavy with worry. "I believe Rheia was arranging supplies for you and Tanuin back at the barracks, and I'll send a courier to your wife later today. As you did not plan on taking your unicorn, I believe that's all."

    "I'll be back shortly, with Tanuin," Taj said, and departed.

    He found Tanuin waiting outside her house, a rapt expression on her face. She was wearing travelling clothes and carrying a small haversack, and remained silent as she watched Taj approach.

    " I'll be ready to leave soon," Taj told her quietly, so as to attract as little attention as possible. "Are you ready?"

    "Yes," Tanuin replied, and they began walking back in the direction that Taj had come, both keeping their voices low. "I would have come and found you earlier, but I realized that I didn't know where to go."

    "I was talking to Nikias, anyway. We'll have to stop by the barracks I was staying in; somebody there has provisions for us. Then we'll have to go talk to Nikias again in their guild hall, and then we can leave."

    "I always wanted to visit a mage city," Tanuin murmured, "although I never expected it to be on a mission like this. I'm not nervous, but I do feel overwhelmed by all this."

    "So do I, Tanuin, so do I. But surely you, too, understand the importance. And if experienced couriers and explorers can't get to Abydos, then not many can. Most of the soldiers around here are in the service of the Tyrant, which rules them out immediately. Any others that aren't working for him probably aren't trustworthy anyway."

    "But of all of those fighters, they chose you, even though they didn't know who you were," Tanuin mused. "Doesn't that seem rather odd?"

    "It does, but I do not know what goes on in the mind of Nikias Arren and his guild. Perhaps they had some incentive to send for me, but I can't fathom what that incentive might have been. It's not that important right now, though, so I shan't worry about it." Taj smiled grimly. "I already have far too much to worry about."

    By this time, they had reached the barracks where Taj had spent the night. They discovered Rheia inside with a small haversack for each of them. The elderly woman gave the sacks to them and quickly bustled off again, calling, "Good luck on your journey!"

    "In a hurry, isn't she?" Tanuin said as she watched Rheia depart. For somebody that old, she sure can move."

    Taj glanced at his friend reproachfully. "Come on, we've got to go find Nikias." He led her back outside, and glancing around, headed off in the direction of the guild hall.

    Keyx was waiting with Nikias in the entry chamber when they arrived. The two guild members seemed uncomfortable around Tanuin, although they greeted her politely enough.

    Keyx seemed hesitant about something, and he turned to Taj nervously, gathering his courage. He still felt a bit intimidated by this tall, skilled swordsman. "I know that not being trained with a weapon- or magic," he added, glancing briefly at Tanuin, "I might not be of much use to you, but I would like to journey with you to Abydos. If neither of you mind, of course."

    "You still have much to learn, Keyx." Taj sighed heavily, but his face was impassive. "I know you want to honor your father; to avenge his death- if that is indeed what happened. But you will be needed here, and you will be of more use here in Cademia than tramping about a city of mages with us. Keyx, your position is with your guild. You would be disgraced if you left them now."

    Nikias nodded in agreement. Taj had said it all. Keyx, although disappointed, he seemed to understand.

    "Are you ready to leave, then?" Nikias asked, looking at Taj and Tanuin.

    Taj only nodded in response. As if under one mind, the four of them silently exited the building and began walking towards the closest city gate, which was the west one. There was a silent understanding among them. Anything that needed to be said had already been said.

    When they reached the gates, a guard came forward and opened them, allowing them passage. He seemed to sense something different about them, and as they passed, he whispered, 'Good luck.'

    Taj and Tanuin stood next to each other on the road, looking out at the forest. Nikias and Keyx silently drew up behind them.

    At the beginning and the end of a great journey, the companions of the quest often feel a sense of closeness; of mutual understanding. Each knows what the other is thinking. At that moment, all four felt this way. The guild leader, the fatherless young man, the swordsman, the mage- their differences were then irrelevant.

    The sun abruptly came out from behind a cloud, and shielding his eyes with a hand, Taj stared up at the sky. The sun was bright, but the air felt heavy; pressing and tense. Taj slung his haversack over his shoulder, checked the longsword at his waist, and turned to the others.

    "There is one thing that I can truly say," he told them, and a great wisdom seemed to lie behind his next words. "We may not succeed, but nor will we have failed."

    And with those words, Taj Lykaon and Tanuin Erwye departed from Cademia.

    A wind gusted through the trees, sending the fallen leaves skittering along the path. The sky had grown overcast, and the small amount of light trickling through the treetops did nothing to help the eerie sensation of the forest.

    Taj had been in many forests throughout his lifetime, including this one, but it seemed different now. Perhaps it was only his troubled mind making it seem darker, gloomier, and foreign, but there was no doubt about the dampness in the air. Rain was coming.

    When they stopped at a clearing by the path for a short lunch, Tanuin brought up the subject of the course they were going to take. "There's two possible ways," she reasoned. "We can cross the mountains, or we can skirt around them and head north-west to Abydos. It would be faster to cross the mountains, but if we did, then where?"

    "I was thinking about that myself," Taj mused. "The only decent place to cross is south of us, since there aren't any passes going through the mountains. Crossing this far north would cause us a delay of at least a day, but if we go south, the mountains get narrower. In that case, we'll have to cross the river, too. But if we cross it where it's still shallow, then we can follow the mountains until we find a good place to pass over them."

    "And then we head south-west to Abydos," Tanuin finished. "Yes, I think that'd probably be best. I'd rather cross the mountains soon after the river, so we can avoid the swamps. And after that, if we stay inland, we can easily avoid the coast as well."

    Taj stood up and began pacing back and forth uneasily. "We'll have to aim for the river by tonight, and camp there. Early tomorrow we'll cross the river, and that gives us the rest of the day for the mountains- providing the weather doesn't delay us. If we go hard, then we can reach Abydos on the third day. On the fourth day, we'll go in."

    "It's possible," Tanuin said thoughtfully. "I hope the rain doesn't last too long, though. Trying to deal with mountains and rain- or snow, up there- would be treacherous." She paused, then looked up at her restless friend. "Please stop pacing back and forth. It's quite unnerving."

    Taj sighed and leaned against a tree. "I'm sorry. I just can't help feeling that something isn't what it should be. To be quite honest, I have no idea what we're going to find at Abydos- I just know it's not going to be good."

    "I feel the same way," Tanuin murmured. "But we're just going to have to wait and see what happens when we get there."

    Upon arriving at the eastern riverside, Taj and Tanuin were greeted by a sudden onset of rain. It came down unforgivingly from dark, dismal clouds; thick torrents of merciless moisture soaking the earth and everything on it.

    The day had been relatively uneventful. Aside from being attacked by a few small animals, they had not been delayed, and reached the river by dusk. They set up camp under the shelter of a grove of alder trees, and had a nice, albeit wet, supper. Even though the leafy branches provided decent shelter, their packs had been soaked through, therefore making everything inside wet too- including their food.

    Tanuin looked up at the dark sky in dismay. "I suppose it's fortunate that we got here before the rain got too heavy, but I just hope it doesn't continue tomorrow."

    "Speaking of tomorrow, how are we going to cross the river?" Taj queried. "There aren't any boats, and it's too wide to swim. Without a cart we can't ford it, either."

    "You forget," Tanuin said, laughing slightly. "I didn't become a mage for nothing."

    "Then what did you become a mage for?" Taj teased. "You're not going to part the waters or anything, are you?"

    "No, no," she murmured. "Levitation. It's difficult to do it with people, I'll admit, especially over something as wide as a river. I'll have to take it easy for awhile after. But can you see an alternative?"

    Taj couldn't think of one, so he didn't argue. "There's a lot of grassland and forest in between here and the mountains, so you'll be able to regain your energy then. If you want, we can wait before crossing the mountains."

    "No, I should be all right," Tanuin replied, and yawned. "But right now, I'd like to sleep. Do you mind taking the first watch?"

    "Not at all. I'll wake you when it's your turn. We'll have to alternate a few times, though- I don't want to stay awake for half the night all at once, and I'm sure you don't either."

    "Goodnight, then," Tanuin replied, already half-asleep.

    The morning dawned cold and cloudy; the grass drenched from the thick overnight dew. Sunlight reflected off the water droplets, making the ground and trees sparkle. Clouds near the horizon became lush yellows and purples, while the clouds higher up remained a smoky grey. It was beautiful, but in an unearthly, supernatural sort of way.

    The two travellers woke early and immediately began packing up again; mindful of how long it might take to cross the mountains. Contrary to the clouds that covered the sky, there was no scent of rain in the air, and it seemed that they would have a fine day for travelling.

    Taj slung his pack over his shoulder and strode out to the bank of the river. The river here was blue, shallow, and rushing, although the rapids were farther north. Down south, where the river deepened out, it became slow, dark, and murky, but it was wider down there. Crossing the narrowest part would be easiest on Tanuin.

    Glancing around to make sure they hadn't forgotten anything, Tanuin picked up her pack and came over to Taj at the riverbank. She looked across at the western bank, studying it. "I'll send you over first," she told Taj, "then our packs, and then me. Oh, and take off your sword; it's too heavy. I'll send it over with our packs."

    Obediently unstrapping the sheath from his belt, Taj laid it down on the ground with his pack and clambered down the steep bank. Tanuin leaned over the edge to talk to him.

    "One thing I've learned from levitating people," Tanuin said, "is that struggling is the worst thing you can do. I've had to do it with unwilling people before. The person struggles around, and makes it next to impossible to control. Just stay still. It's a strange sensation, floating off the ground, but ignore that. I haven't had to do any really strong magic recently, so hopefully I won't have too much trouble with this. Are you ready?"

    "Ready as I'll ever be," Taj said, a nervous smile playing about his face.

    Tanuin nodded and straightened up. She closed her eyes in concentration, raised her hands and began uttering an incantation under her breath.

    Taj felt his feet slowly lift off the ground. Looking down, he could see the dirt and bulrushes about two feet underneath him. He hung in the air for a moment, legs dangling as he slowly rose, then he began to move closer to the water.

    The river roared noisily under him, and Taj thought he saw the faint outline of fish under the surface of the water. It definitely was a peculiar, not to mention unnerving, feeling; hanging five feet above the surface of a raging river that looked eager to swallow him up and carry him all the way down to the ocean.

    But in a moment, Taj had passed the water, and Tanuin let him descend back down to the ground. Anxiously he waited until his feet touched the earth, then with a sigh of relief he was able to support his own weight again.

    Looking back across the river, he could see that Tanuin had already begun sending their packs across the river. As strange as it had been hovering above the earth, the sight of two packs moving through the air towards him was quite disturbing. Taj waited patiently until the bags drew near, then he reached out and took one in each hand. His sword was next to come, and he began strapping the sheath back onto his belt.

    On the eastern side, Tanuin had begun levitating herself across. She was, of course, used to the sensation of being levitated by now. But as she drew nearer, Taj noticed that she was less than a foot above the surface, and her head was nodding. He realized she must have been getting exhausted.

    "Not much farther to go, Tanuin," he called out to the mage. She nodded back weakly; her toes now dangling only a few inches above the rushing water.

    Concerned, Taj dropped his sword on the ground and began wading out to her, heedless of the cold water swirling around his knees. He'd be able to reach her soon... he glanced back at the shore for a second, then he heard Tanuin shriek.

    Taj turned around just in time to see a colossal fish leap out of the water and slam the whole length of its body into Tanuin. He only had time to cry out before the mage collapsed and disappeared into the frothing river. Taj dove into the water, searching frantically for Tanuin's body.

    Tanuin was still conscious, but going into shock and not fully aware of the circumstances. The fish had collided with her head-on and knocked the breath from her lungs. Dazed, she kicked out in case the fish was trailing her. Fortunately she still had some of her wits about her, and desperately cast around for something to hold on to.

    A tree root, sticking out from the bank of the river. She reached out and grasped it, struggling against the flow of the current. Lifting her head from the surface, she coughed, spitting out river water and blood from where her teeth had gone through her lip. The fish was suddenly the least of her worries. Above all, she had to keep her head above the water.

    Meanwhile Taj had seen Tanuin grab the root, and was now swimming desperately towards his friend. He was stronger and a better swimmer than Tanuin, who had mostly ignored physical training while involved in the mental complexities of becoming a mage. As well, Taj was not exhausted like Tanuin was. Due to this he was able to reach Tanuin in less time than it had taken her to get there.

    Taj reached out and put an arm underneath Tanuin, supporting her limp form. She was still coughing up water and just barely hanging onto the root. Fighting the current, Taj took a firm hold and began pulling Tanuin through the water towards the bank. It wasn't easy, supporting the weight of two people and going against a strong current; but he managed.

    Laying Tanuin down onto the riverbank, Taj collapsed beside her, breathing heavily. Tanuin rolled over onto her stomach and retched, spitting up more river water. Both were soaked through from head to toe and completely exhausted, but alive.

    When Taj regained his breath, he stood and gazed out at the river. There was no sign of the fish that attacked Tanuin. He turned back to his mage friend and helped her up. "Are you going you be all right?" he asked; apprehension audible in his voice.

    "Yes, I'm fine now," Tanuin said; though her voice was weak and she was shivering. "But I don't know why I couldn't hold myself higher from the surface. I think I must have tired myself out sending you across."

    Taj looked at her quizzically, but didn't inquire further. Instead, he took off his sopping grey cloak and gestured to Tanuin. "You can explain as we walk. We're both wet, and staying in wet clothing will make us sick, so let's get our packs and change into something dry. Besides, we still have to cross the mountains."

    Tanuin nodded wearily. "Yes, I'm coming." She wrapped her cloak tightly around her body and slowly began walking beside Taj, then took a deep breath and began explaining.

    "I was fine at first, sending you across. But about halfway across the river, there was..." Tanuin struggled with her words, not knowing quite how to explain it. "Well, it seemed like some other force pulling on you, towards the south. Then something pulling you back towards the north, sort of like two people playing tug-of-war with you. I don't know what it was, but I could sense it. I don't suppose you noticed anything?" Seeing Taj shake his head, she frowned and continued. "Whatever it was, there was a lot of strength behind it. I had to strain myself to keep you stable, and I guess it just took too much energy."

    "So do you think somebody knows of our approach?" Taj queried. "Somebody in Abydos, perhaps?"

    "Not necessarily," Tanuin said reflectively. "It didn't seem like somebody was actually trying to pull you anywhere. It's quite possible that a person could have caused it and not even known. It had to be a human, though; and somebody with magical abilities. My best guess is an Abydos mage." She fell into a thoughtful silence, and they walked that way until they reached the spot where Taj had left their possessions.

    Being out in the middle of nowhere did have its advantages; for instance, one can leave some possessions out of sight for a long time and nobody will disturb it. As such, everything was still there.

    The travellers changed into their set of dry clothes, shouldered their packs, and turned in the direction of the mountains. With the morning haze gone from the horizon, the mountains could be seen off in the distance.

    Taj strapped his sword back onto his belt, glad to feel its heavy weight against his side. In an area this remote, he felt lost without it. He gave Tanuin a bleak smile. "Ready?"

    Tanuin nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be. Let's go."

    At sunset on the second day of their journey, Taj and Tanuin could be found setting up camp again, on the far side of the mountains. The crossing had been completely uneventful, and even the weather had been agreeable. Aside from a light rain around noon, it had been clear all day- the preferable weather for crossing a mountain range.

    "Well, we're on schedule," Tanuin commented as she laid out her bedroll. "Tomorrow, we can rise early, and use the whole day to go south to Abydos."

    Taj nodded. "We're getting closer, that's for sure." He sighed wearily and looked up at the darkening sky. "Closer and closer... but to what?"

    "Neither of us can say," Tanuin replied simply.

    A cold, refreshing breeze blew across the forests and meadows of southwestern Cythera. There was a salty tang in it, and it smelled of the sea.

    Taj lifted his head to the wind, testing it. "We must be getting close to the coast," he told Tanuin. "And that means close to Abydos, too."

    Tanuin nodded in response, but she didn't say anything. The sensation of something astray was even more noticeable here than it had been on the other side of the mountains, and she was beginning to have misgivings about this journey.

    Taj didn't even have to ask to know what the mage was thinking; they'd spent so much time together over the years that they both instinctively knew. Taj sighed slightly. "I can feel it too, Tanuin. Something's gone wrong at Abydos, but there's no way we can find out what it is unless we keep going."

    With their approach of the coast came the advance of impending rain. The scent mingled with the salty aroma of the ocean, making everything seem more alive.

    They were not far from Abydos now. Taj estimated that if they went hard the rest of the afternoon, they would be able to explore around Abydos the day after, providing that the rain didn't slow them down.

    The rain began within the hour- a slow, meandering drizzle at first, then gradually it became harder and faster until it had reached a full-fledged gale.

    Cold and soaked as they were, there was a certain determination about the two travellers that kept them going. The rain did not actually hamper them much, nor did the wind, since thick uncharted forests sheltered most of the route.

    They had been going hard all day, with only a few short rests. Both wanted to reach Abydos as soon as possible, but neither knew exactly how far it would be, so they decided to go as far as they could.

    Exhausted, they halted in a secluded meadow just after dusk fell. Wearily they set up camp for the third time, opting not to light a fire, and then set to arranging watches.

    It was obviously going to be dangerous near to a foreign mage city, and neither Taj nor Tanuin wanted to be caught by surprise in the middle of the night. Taj was less weary then Tanuin, and so he offered to take first shift. Tanuin didn't argue; only reminded her friend to keep a vigilant watch around them. With that, she collapsed into bed and fell asleep almost instantly.

    "Listen," Tanuin said suddenly, stopping in the middle of the glade they were crossing. "Gulls. Can you hear them?"

    Taj listened attentively to the noises around him. A rush singing; the trickle of a brook; a cricket- and yes, he could hear the seagulls. He smiled in relief. "It can't be far now. I was hoping to find Abydos yesterday, but I suppose it's just as well- we'd have to backtrack so as to not camp too close. This way we can find it, and have all day to scout it out."

    Tanuin nodded in agreement. "I'm worried about what we're going to find, though." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I can sense it- the feeling of something amiss. It's so much stronger here, and it increases with every step I take. We're so close... so close..."

    The two companions continued on in silence, wary of every sound and every movement, fearful that they would be attacked at any moment.

    Presently they came across a well-worn dirt path in the woods leading north to south; an unmistakable sign of habitation. It came as rather a shock to Taj and Tanuin. Not only had they both quickly become familiar with the wild environment around them, but also now they knew without hesitation that Abydos could not be any farther than a few kilometres away.

    They cautiously followed the path through the forest, but there was nothing. Everything seemed undisturbed. There were no voices; no rangers on patrol; no mages out collecting herbs. Nothing. It was extraordinary luck on the part of Taj and Tanuin, but fully unexpected.

    The night had been the same. Whoever was on watch had been wide awake, wary of anything unusual, but there was nothing different from the previous night they had spent. It was silent; abandoned; seemingly uninhabited.

    The path rounded a bend and the companions found themselves in a large, spacious clearing. The path led across the glade to the far end, where a tall stone wall rose from the horizon. The wall surrounded a large area; large enough for several buildings to be contained inside. Through the gates they could distantly see buildings.

    A strong wind, smelling of salt and seaweed, blew in from the far side. Gulls circled overhead and cried their high-pitched wailings for all to hear. The noise of strong waves crashing upon the rocks reached their ears, and past the stone walls, a vast expanse of water spread out farther than the eye could see. The ocean.

    Taj Lykaon and Tanuin Erwye had found Abydos.

    In the whole glade, there was not a sign of recent habitation to be seen, although small animal tracks freely lined the grass. The whole thing was simply bizarre. A thriving city of mages at one point, and it was now silent and deserted.

    Taj and Tanuin silently explored the glade, but there was nothing to be found. There were no recent human tracks on the dirt path they had traversed. They met back at the center of the glade, utterly bemused.

    "There's nothing here," Tanuin said, her voice tense. "Little wonder nobody disturbed us last night. I do believe nobody even knows we're here. It seems perfectly safe."

    "It seems that way, yes." Taj had a worried, yet determined look on his face. "But Nikias didn't think it would be. Why would all of his couriers not return to Cademia, if it was so safe here? It just doesn't make sense. There's obviously something going on that nobody- not us, not Nikias a

  • WOW! That's just it. WOW!

    Finally powered by Mac OS X!

  • Good work, kat - one thing, though, and I have noticed this before -
    the italics make it hard to read. Since the chrons support HTML, it seems like it might be a good idea to use a diffrent font, or possibly even:

    to keep things devided.

    In general, what exactly makes a game good isn't that easily
    quantified - perhaps the absense of things that make it bad? - Words of Wisdom from Glenn Andreas

    Where do you want to (url="http://"")teleport(/url) today?

  • Wow that's a great story cache22. Very imaginative. Keep it coming and I'll keep reading. Obviously a lot of time was put into the story.

    -Zaphod Beeblebrox - President of the Universe
    All hail El Presidente Beeblebrox

  • On behalf of iKaterei, thanks ;)

    Just to clear up any confusion, part 1 was entirely Kat's effort. It ended up being submitted under my account due to the difficulties we had getting the webboard to actually accept the submission (with both parts unified, the board kept reporting a successful receipt - but it never showed in the queue.)

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  • Intriging story, I am eager to read how it all ends in, The last hand of fate.

    It captured my attention, and was funny sometimes, with great vocabulary.

  • In order to make sure that the lost parts don't disappear completely, I'm posting them each in their respective chrons.
    So here is the missing part from the Hand of Fate part 1 beginning with the paragraph where the board cut it off (Note: the italics didn't transfer over. I'll add them if people really want them added):

    "It seems that way, yes." Taj had a worried, yet determined look on his face. "But Nikias didn't think it would be. Why would all of his couriers not return to Cademia, if it was so safe here? It just doesn't make sense. There's obviously something going on that nobody- not us, not Nikias and his guild, not the Tyrant- ever expected. I don't know what it is, but it's not good."

    As if guided by an unseen hand, the travellers followed the trail in the direction of the city. They had no worries now about being seen.

    Tall, wooden gates, at least fifteen feet tall, loomed above them as they approached the walls. No guards were to be seen anywhere. "Can't be too concerned about security," Tanuin whispered, only half-joking.

    The gates opened with a light push from Taj. They had not been locked. Tanuin entered first, looking around with a revered silence. The cries of the seagulls were muffled inside the city, and an eerie silence filled her ears.

    Tanuin turned to beckon to Taj, but she saw something out of the corner of her eye that made her gasp. She stifled a scream, and strode over to it quickly.

    It was the body of a man; a guard judging by his armour. He was lying next to the stone wall. Tanuin knelt down and touched a hand to his face. The skin was cold and clammy. He was dead.

    "There's no sign of an attack anywhere," Taj muttered darkly. He had entered the gates and followed Tanuin over to the corpse. "The other guard, over there, is dead too. If I didn't know better, I'd say they fell ill, but both at once? Not likely."

    Tanuin studied the corpse. "The signs are all here. No, it wasn't natural causes." She stood up and sighed. "He died due to magic"

    Taj didn't respond. Instead he turned in the direction of the nearest building- the guardhouse.

    The main room was empty, but in the small barracks room two corpses lay on the floor, as if they had suddenly dropped dead. Which was quite possible, if Tanuin was right and this was all due to magic.

    The smell of death was unbearable, so Taj shut the door and explored the other rooms. It was the same everywhere. Unnerved, he went outside again. Tanuin was nowhere to be seen, but Taj wasn't concerned. Her magic was formidable; she could take care of herself if anything happened. Of course, he didn't expect anything to happen in the first place.

    Every sound seemed out of place in the muffled silence that flooded the city. Taj could tell that this had once been a prosperous city, probably bustling with people and noise. What had happened to it?

    Inside a small peasant's cottage, he discovered six bodies lying around a table. There were plates and glasses on the table, as if they had been having a meal. The food was beginning to rot. Obviously the deaths were not a recent event.

    As far as Taj could tell, every person in Abydos simply had dropped dead. He had not found a living person yet. That was what was puzzling him now- who had done this treachery, and where was the person now? Or was it a group of people? More than likely.

    He left the cottage, trying to forget about the sick feeling he had, and found himself in a large courtyard. Dead bodies littered the ground. >From the corner of his eye, Taj saw a movement, and then turned to see Tanuin hurrying towards him.

    "This place is a graveyard," she muttered tensely when she arrived. "Nothing is alive. Nothing. I found a pen of sheep back there- even they are all dead. I don't like it, Taj, not at all."

    "I don't like it any more than you do." Taj sighed heavily. "But I can guess as to some of it. There was some sort of plot to kill these people, and it must have been orchestrated very carefully to be so successful. But you see, whoever planned it didn't want any outsiders to know, so they killed off all of Nikias' messengers before they could return to Cademia."

    "That makes sense. But how are we supposed to know who did it? Not counting the children of the people, over three-quarters of the people in Abydos were mages. Not all would be powerful enough, of course, but I expect many were. It could have been nearly anyone."

    Taj thought hard to himself. "Who was the leader of Abydos again?"

    "His name was Tavara. He came from Pnyx and built a city here. Why do you want to know?" Tanuin looked confused.

    "I'm going to go look for him, and his home. Maybe there'll be some clues there."

    "Oh!" Tanuin exclaimed. "I understand. Yes, that's a good idea. I'm going to go look around in the other buildings some more. Meet me back at this courtyard when you're done."

    Taj nodded, and they departed in separate directions. Now that the initial threat of being caught was over, and they realized that a surprise attack was extremely unlikely in this graveyard of a city, neither was too worried about staying hidden.

    He had no idea where Tavara's house might be, so he headed for the largest building in sight. Once inside he discovered that it was a council hall of sorts. To his relief, there did not seem to have been a council taking place at the time of the mass deaths. The sight of dozens of dead bodies, seated around a table in a meeting chamber, would have been extremely disconcerting. Taj shuddered at the thought. He had seen a good many deaths in his life, but nothing like this before.

    There was nothing noteworthy in the rooms there, but as Taj was about to leave the council hall, Tanuin came dashing up to him. She stopped at the door, breathing heavily. When she caught her breath she straightened up and showed Taj a small, leather-bound book she had clutched in her hand.

    "It's a diary," Tanuin told him breathlessly. "From a young girl named Shoshanna Iolaus. Read the last entry." She thrust the journal into Taj's hand.

    Bewildered, Taj flipped it open and found the last entry. It was dated eight days previous.

    Yesterday Adrian fell ill. For a week now, so many people have been getting sick. I don't know why, but lots of my friends got sick, and now Adrian is too. I'm worried about him.

    Father told me I wasn't to visit Adrian, because he needs rest. I really wanted to talk to him- none of our other brothers ever listen to me- but I guess I have to wait until he gets better.

    They called one of the healers in this morning to look at Adrian, but she didn't know what was wrong. At least, that's what she told me. I think Father knows, but he won't tell any of us. There's so much that Father never tells us.

    Of course, Tavara trusts Father, so I don't think I need to worry about anything. I'm so glad that Father is one of Tavara's lieutenants. I found out from Adrian's friend that (I)Tavara has been getting angry with some people, and they've been getting in trouble. I want to know why, but nobody will tell me. I just hope Tavara doesn't get angry with Father too.

    Last week somebody came to the gates. I don't know who he was, but he went away quickly with some of the guards. He was from far, far away- the other side of the island, they say. I want to go there someday, but not until I grow up. But when I grow up, I think Father wants me to be a mage, like him and Mother are. I don't know if I want to be one.

    They're teaching Adrian to be a mage, but now that he's sick, he can't go to school. I wonder if he'll still be able to get his lessons. Maybe I can convince Father to let me bring Adrian's lessons, and then I can talk to him again.

    About this time the writing became messy and nearly illegible, and Taj had difficulty reading it.

    Mother just came in to see me. She seemed angry. I think she was arguing with Father- I heard them downstairs- but I don't know what it was about. Father and the other lieutenants have been spending so much time with Tavara recently. It seems almost like they're planning something! But that's silly.

    I'll finish writing this later. My chest started hurting all of a sudden... maybe I'll finish it after I sleep.

    Taj looked up a Tanuin, even more confused than before. "But what..."

    Tanuin cut him off. "Don't you see? Everybody started getting sick all of a sudden. This was about a week ago. Judging by what we've seen, everyone died not long after that."

    "So this illness is connected to the deaths," Taj murmured. He stared up at the afternoon sky unseeingly, thinking hard. Suddenly his head snapped down and he stared at the mage intently. "Tanuin! Where did you find this?"

    "Back there, down that road," Tanuin replied, surprised by his sudden inquisitiveness. "I can show you the house, if you want."

    Taj's hand gripped the diary forcefully. He laid a hand on Tanuin's shoulder. She squirmed under his rigid grip, but he didn't let go. "Did you search the rest of the house?"

    "No, I came back as soon as-"

    "Show me which house it was!"

    Tanuin was overwhelmed by Taj's sudden ferocity, but she had the fortunate ability to keep a calm head in situations like those. "Follow me," she told him, and took off running down the alleyway. Taj followed at her heels.

    The mage and the swordsman stopped in front a large brick house, probably belonging to a wealthy associate of Tavara's. Tanuin led him inside and pointed at a staircase. "Up those stairs and in the room on the left, is where I found the diary."

    Taj followed Tanuin's directions and found himself in a small bedroom overlooking the road. A girl was slumped on the floor; a quill and pot of spilled ink lay on the wooden floor. She was unmistakably dead.

    Tanuin had followed Taj up the stairs and was watching from the doorway. "I imagine she died just as she finished writing. That explains why the writing became so messy, if she was about to die."

    "And you'd expect that everybody else in he house would be dead, too, wouldn't you?" A grim expression crossed Taj's face. "There is one important factor here. If it is found, then my theory is proved correct."

    Baffled, Tanuin stood back from the doorway to let her friend pass. Taj immediately set about exploring the other rooms. Each room had a single dead child. In one, he found a boy about the age of eighteen lying in bed. Taj had a feeling this was Adrian.

    Downstairs in the kitchen he found a woman around thirty years of age, lying on the floor. A pot was hanging above the stove, and it seemed that she had been cooking a meal. None of this was important to Taj at the moment. There was one particular person he was looking for, and he had a feeling that person would not be easily found.

    He searched the other rooms, finding nothing else. Taj cursed quietly. His theory was true.

    Standing at the foot of the staircase, he called up to Tanuin. She appeared at the top almost immediately. "Did you find anything?" she asked anxiously, coming down to meet him.

    "No, and that's just it," Taj said, staring at her. "In the diary, Shoshanna said that she heard her parents arguing downstairs. I found the mother in the kitchen, but the father is nowhere in this house. Nowhere!" His voice shook with anger. "Right after Shoshanna wrote that, she died. The father would have still been in the house at the time. Do you realize what that means?"

    Tanuin's eyes widened in sudden understanding. "Yes," she whispered. "The father- one of Tavara's lieutenants- is not dead like the rest of his family."

    Taj's face darkened. "Perhaps Abydos' leader and his associates aren't as innocent as they seem."

    Neither companion was too keen on spending the night in a surreal graveyard such as Abydos had been turned into, so they returned to the forests when dusk fell. Silently they set up camp and made a meal, but neither was really paying attention to what they did.

    Earlier in the day, they wouldn't have bothered to post a watch. Everything had seemed so tranquil when they first arrived- unusual, yes, but tranquil. Now that they knew Tavara might be up to something, their worries had returned. Not only that, but both travellers had an inexplicable feeling of being watched- as if people were hiding in the dense brush and looking out at them. So they arranged watches.

    Even so, they had another quiet night. It was perplexing. All of these deaths suddenly... and nothing happens to the two foreigners wandering around a city? The only reasonable explanation they came up with was that Tavara and his lieutenants had left Abydos.

    They rose again at sunrise, wondering what they were supposed to do. Taj mentioned that they could go back to Cademia and report to Nikias, but then he realized that meant giving Tavara free leave to do whatever it was he was planning. They considered going back into Abydos and looking around some more, but it might be a wasted expedition, especially since neither knew just what they would be looking for.

    Tanuin sighed in exasperation. "I honestly don't know what to do. Well, actually, there is one possibility we haven't thought of- breakfast." With that comment, she set about preparing food for them.

    Meanwhile Taj was absent-mindedly sharpening his hunting knife. He had only been half-paying attention to Tanuin; his mind was wandering today and he couldn't seem to focus on anything.

    Then he heard a shout from Tanuin, who had gone to get water from a stream. Jumping up from the ground, he dashed in the direction she had gone.

    By the bank of a stream he found the mage grappling with an unfamiliar man. Startled, Taj leaped forward and grabbed the man around the neck. Tanuin instantly released him.

    There was a short struggle in which Taj found himself pinning the man against the ground. The man had been taken by surprise and so Taj had the advantage.

    Unnerved, the man tried to push Taj off him into the stream, but Taj pressed his sharpened hunting knife against the newcomer's neck. A thin line of blood appeared.

    "Who are you, and what is your business?" Taj growled, gritting his teeth.

    "What do you care?" the man snarled. "My business is my own, and I was minding it, until that woman came along and attacked me."

    "I did no such thing. You grabbed me from behind and tried to strangle me." There was a fury in Tanuin's eyes that few people had ever seen and lived through. She spit at the strange man and began powering a spell. "What a cowardly thing to do. Now, if you stay still and tell us who you are, you will be safe. You have a knife at your throat and a spell at your back. Behave."

    The man stopped struggling, although he did not seem keen on doing so. "I have been sent on- er- business from my master. What that business is has no importance to you."

    Taj kept his hold on the man. "What is your name?"

    The man was obviously terrified, but he managed to speak proudly. "I am Kastor Iolaus, a mage. I serve the mage above all mages, leader of the great city, speaker for the immortals- Tavara of Abydos!" A light rose in his eyes. "Is that enough for you, foul forest-walkers? Will you release me now!?"

    Tanuin took a step backwards, appalled and horrified. "Kastor Iolaus. Of all people, we had to stumble across you." She turned her back to the two men and retched, apparently sick. When she turned back there was a furious expression wreathed across her face, and she began screaming at Kastor.

    "You wretched, filthy, disgusting, scheming little fiend! You were responsible for the deaths of your family! Have you even been in Abydos since it happened? It is a sickening place where no living person should ever be." Tanuin's voice was shaking with rage. "You left your family there to rot, but you were alive. How could you be so wretched? You knew about it, didn't you? You knew about Tavara's plans. You didn't stop Tavara." Sobbing with anger, Tanuin was about to release the spell she had been holding. If Taj had not stopped her, Kastor would have been dead in a moment.

    Kastor lay on the ground, his eyes shut, head down. He was shaking. When he looked up again, Tanuin realized there were tears in his eyes. "Do you speak the truth? Are they really dead? Calliope, and Adrian, and Shoshanna..." Kastor's voice broke and he was silent for a moment. "Tavara told me they would be spared. I was coming back to find them, to bring them back. The ceremony- it was supposed to happen tonight- but he didn't spare them. Did you see them?" he cried, suddenly anguished. "Did you see my family?!"

    Taj drew the hunting knife back. "I saw your wife and your children. They are all dead." His voice was cold, although not entirely unsympathetic. "I understand your sorrow, Kastor Iolaus, but we can not entirely forgive you. You were still a part of Tavara's plan, were you not?"

    "I knew of Tavara's intentions, yes, and I went along with it. You would not understand the reasoning, I'm sure. But he told me they would all be spared..." Kastor clenched his teeth. "He lied to me. They could still be brought back... but he lied, and he will have to pay for that."

    On a sudden inspiration, Tanuin contained her anger and spoke to Kastor. "If you seek revenge, Kastor, then perhaps you would be willing to help us. We do not know why Tavara killed the people of Abydos, and we need to know. If you would explain it to us, we would be able to take revenge on Tavara for you."

    It was cunning, but Kastor had not become a lieutenant for nothing, and he acted carefully. But the desire to make Tavara pay for lying was strong in Kastor's heart. "I still am in the service of Tavara, and I could do no harm to him. Yet you would be able to." To himself, he thought that even if these two strangers managed to inflict any damage on Tavara, they would die soon after. His master would live, but vengeance would still be taken. The more Kastor considered it, the more he liked the thought. "Very well," he said, taking a deep breath, "I will explain."

    "Tavara has long wanted to become immortal, as many others have over the years. Yet the only way he saw fit to do so was to become an undead. That way, he could never die, because he was technically already dead.

    "In order to do this, he had to take the life of other people. Tavara had a whole city of people at his disposal, and he realized that the more people he killed, the more powerful he would become as an undead. Consequently we came up with a plan.

    "A few select officers would become undead with him. I was one of them. I beseeched him to allow my family to undergo the transformation with us, and he agreed. For a week, people began falling ill as the spells took effect. Then when the final spell was cast, everyone died. Supposedly my family was spared, but I had just left the house as Tavara cast it, and I did not know they had not survived."

    "So Tavara decided to kill them anyway," Tanuin murmured. "Interesting."

    "The scoundrel did not keep his promise. Tonight was when the final transformation would happen. And now, I ask you to seek revenge on Tavara." Kastor's face twisted in a wicked smile. "You will find him in the catacombs below Abydos. Take this map, I shall have no need of it." He handed a faded map to Taj, then before either could react he opened a portal and disappeared.

    Tanuin stared at the spot where Kastor had been standing apprehensively. "I cannot pretend that I'm not glad of his departure, but all the same, I wonder where he's gone. His portal could have taken him anywhere. "

    "There's nothing we can do about that now." Taj folded up the map and placed it in his bag. "It's a map of Abydos and underground," he explained. "I suppose he knows all the routes already."

    "We can't do this alone, you know." Tanuin was worried. "Not by a long shot. Neither of us have the strength to stand up to Tavara and his officers. I can't believe they actually did that. That's going past sickening- now it's downright scary. So now what do we do?"

    Taj had already begun walking back towards their camp. "I don't know. You're the mage. What is most effective against something dead?"

    "Its opposite, of course- life. A magic's opposite is always most effective. But what-" then it dawned on Tanuin. "Oh! We need something to contain the power of life magic!"

    "And that, my friend, is just what we are going to get. We'll go to the nearest city and find a smith or a carpenter, and create some sort of enchanted item."

    Tanuin smiled for the first time in what felt like weeks. "All right then, Taj Lykaon. Tomorrow, we head to Kosha."

    The decided route was to travel south-east and skirt the mountains, then to pass in between the swamps and the mountains range. At the northern part of the swamps a bridge crossed the river. They would cross and then proceed to Kosha from there. Overall it would take just over two days.

    They travelled hard and arrived at Kosha early in the morning of the third day. The guards let them in without any trouble, they checked into a local inn, and the two companions set to the task of creating the enchanted item.

    Tanuin explained it to Taj as they sat in the tavern of their inn. She made sure to keep her voice low, so as not to be overheard. "I've been thinking about this as we travelled. The only way I know of to enchant something with life magic is to drain part of somebody's lifeforce into the item. The problem with having an item containing somebody's lifeforce is that nobody else will be able to wield it- it'd be like wielding somebody's soul. Trust me, I've seen it happen and it's not a pleasant sight."

    "So whoever ends up putting their lifeforce into it, is going to be the one to use it against Tavara?" Taj queried.

    "Right. In my opinion, I think it should be you. People can't easily enchant something with their own lifeforce. I've never tried but apparently it's quite difficult. So if it was yours, then I'd be able to transfer it from you to the item."

    Taj chuckled in spite of himself. "I never thought I'd be putting part of myself into a weapon- if that's what the item is going to be?"

    Tanuin fell into a thoughtful silence. Presently she looked up and nodded. "Yes, a weapon would probably be best. A sort of staff, I imagine- it's less conspicuous. We'll have to find a carpenter to make it for us, but that shouldn't be too hard. Tomorrow, we can start." She yawned and stretched out her pale arms. "Right now, I'm tired and want to sleep, and I can tell you do too. Thank goodness we don't have to post a watch tonight."

    "Unless Tavara or Kastor happens to be following us." Taj's face twisted into a wry grin, and he was forced to duck as the mage swiped at him.

    "Don't say things like that! I'm looking forward to a peaceful sleep, so don't make me worry. Now come on, let's get some rest."

    Kosha, like Cademia, had separate areas for each guild, so it was not hard to find a carpenter. They asked the owner of the inn for directions, and he aimed them to the correct area. He also recommended they find the carpenter named 'Roth'.

    Taj and Tanuin found the building and entered it cautiously. It was small, only one room, and behind the front counter several projects were spread out. Sawdust covered the floor and the whole place smelled of fresh-cut wood.

    A heavyset man with black hair and dark eyes was applying the finishing touches to an oak table. He looked up as they entered and smiled. "I don't recognize you, so you can't be here to pick something. Name's Roth. You here to have something made?"

    "Yes, we are," Taj said. "A short staff, maybe two feet long, preferably hollow and open at both ends." Taj looked around at the other items in the shop. "Seems you don't do weapons much, and I know it's a strange request, but you'll have to trust me on this."

    Roth studied the newcomers critically. "You two look like travellers. Many a traveller comes in here looking for weapons, actually- worried about being attacked by them ruffians." He laughed. "Most wouldn't be any better off with a weapon than without, but it looks like you could take care of yourself. Which brings me to the point- why d'ya need a staff when you have a perfectly good sword? For the lady, pr'haps?" He gestured to Tanuin.

    "Er-" Taj glanced at Tanuin for confirmation. She nodded. "Uh, yes, it's for my friend."

    "All right, then," Roth laid down the tool he had been using. "I can have it for you in two days, if you want. These other projects almost all finished, so it won't take too long."

    "If it's at all possible," Tanuin said quickly, "we'd like it tomorrow. We can pay you extra."

    Roth frowned, slightly suspicious. "Now you tell me," he said, "you can get it tomorrow if you really need it, but just what good do you think a hollow staff is going to be? Might break easily without somethin' inside to support it."

    "As I said, you'll just have to trust us," Taj said uncomfortably. "We know why we want it, and I'm sure it'll be perfectly able to do what we need it to do."

    "I'm sorry to be so inquisitive," the carpenter said, lowering his voice, "but strange things have been happening. Not here in Kosha, but other places, you know? Like in Cademia... and even farther south."

    Tanuin stifled a gasp. "How far south do you mean?" she asked stiffly.

    "All the way down to the coast," Roth replied, coming around the counter. His voice was now no more than a whisper, and his dark eyes were searching their expressions carefully. "People wandering around- or even not wandering around, if you catch my drift. I have a friend in a guild in Cademia, and I believe you know him. He did say that two people had been sent off. Now, I know it's a long shot asking- but do you two happen to be Taj Lykaon and Tanuin Erwye?"

    "Yes, I am Taj Lykaon." Taj's face was impassive. "Your friend is Nikias Arren, is it not? It would make sense. But I have to wonder- how did you know it was us?"

    Roth shrugged unconcernedly. "Not hard to figure out. Few people around here except for the guards carry a blade like that, you know." He gestured to Taj's sword. "Besides, Kosha is the closest city to your destination, with the exception of Pnyx. It's not surprising that you came here."

    Tanuin leaned toward Roth earnestly. "I'll have to ask you to please not tell anyone else about this. If the Tyrant finds out, the result will not be pleasant. Hardly anybody can be trusted anymore. I'm sure now you can understand the importance of this staff. I won't explain why, but our mission relies solely on it."

    "Makes sense to me," Roth replied. "But no, you don't have to worry about me telling anyone. I don't want to put your life in danger, nor mine."

    "What do you mean?" Taj inquired. "I'm sure you wouldn't be blamed just for carving us a staff."

    "Ah, that's precisely it," Roth smiled. "You don't think I'm letting you two run off to Abydos alone, do you? Support a guild; hire-a-carpenter! I'm coming with you!"

    Tanuin and Taj immediately began to argue against this, but Roth persisted. He claimed that if they didn't let him come, he wouldn't make the staff. If they did, he'd have it done for the next day.

    "There's no reason why I shouldn't," he said. "Then you don't have to worry about me going and telling lots of people. My shop will be fine, too. I have an apprentice; I bet he'll be glad to take over for awhile. What sort of life is this, staying in town and doing carpentry work? I always wanted to get out and see what there is to be seen. And," Roth added quietly, "when it really comes down to it, you'll probably need my help dealing with Tavara. I'm happy to be working for two fine warriors such as yourselves."

    In the end it was decided that Roth would come with them to Abydos again. Tanuin commented it'd be nice to have another person along, and any friend of Nikias' was surely trustworthy.

    Roth said they could pick the staff up tomorrow, and he'd be ready. They bid him goodbye and returned to the inn feeling as if a great load had been taken from their shoulders.

    "I'm glad that's over and done with," Taj said in relief once they were back inside, away from prying ears and eyes. "Tomorrow when we get the staff, we can begin the enchantment."

    "Yes," Tanuin murmured contemplatively. "But I've been thinking about it, and I realized something. When the lifeforce of a person is drained away, it causes them to become ill or weak. You're going to have to put a lot of energy into this, so-"

    She was interrupted by a knock at the door. It opened and a porter appeared, shifting uneasily. "Taj Lykaon? There's a messenger for you in the front lobby."

    "I'll be right there," Taj said. The porter nodded and departed, rather quickly, Tanuin subconsciously noted.

    "Nobody else knows we're in Kosha, do they?" Taj said curiously. "I wonder who it is. Wait here while I go find out. If I don't come back soon, then come looking."

    In the lobby of the inn, a familiar man was waiting uncomfortably. He looked up as Taj entered, and a look of recognition spread across Taj's face.

    "Hyllos!" he exclaimed and hurried forward. "Whatever are you doing here- and how did you know where to find me?"

    "We received word of your presence here, and immediately my guild sent me as a courier. I have important news for you." Hyllos looked grave. "I was sent to inform you that Nikias Arren is dead. Keyx has become leader of the guild."

    Taj's jaw dropped. "Nikias? What happened to him? Was it because of-"

    "Hush, not so loud," Hyllos whispered, and his eyes flickered nervously about the empty lobby. "Do not mention the name. No, nothing to do with that. Anything related to it has been kept to the south and not near to Cademia. He was attacked while outside of Cademia, with some of the other members. But you realize the significance of this. The quest relies solely on you and Tanuin now. There is nothing more our guild can do to help you."

    Taj nodded. He understood. "When I agreed to it, I said that this would become my quest, and so it has. Yet I now have two companions- Tanuin Erwye, and just this morning we acquired a carpenter named Roth. He will be travelling with us."

    "That is well," Hyllos said solemnly. "Take as many as you need, but no more than you can trust. Yet now, I must leave again. Farewell, Taj Lykaon, and good luck."

    "Farewell," Taj said and silently he watched Hyllos depart. Disheartened, he returned to where Tanuin was waiting.

    "Nikias Arren is dead, and Keyx has taken over leadership of the guild." Taj repeated the words impassively.

    Tanuin looked stunned. "Of all people, it was their leader who fell... Well, it comes as a shock, for sure, but we can't let it delay us. This only proves the importance of our task."

    Taj smiled bleakly. "Then don't sit there thinking; get on with it. You've yet to explain what you were saying before Hyllos arrived."

    "Fine, fine, just give me a moment to remember where I was. All right- let's see. As I was saying, you're going to be quite weak after we enchant the staff, because you'll be losing some of your lifeforce. We can't afford to wait until you're healed, either."

    "So what do you suggest we do?"

    "I think that if you were healed while the enchantment is taking place, you'd be a lot better off," Tanuin continued. "My healing skills aren't good enough to do that- I'm mostly a combat mage, as you know- and I wouldn't be able to do both magical processes at the same time anyway. We'll need to hire a healer."

    "But that means hiring a magical healer," Taj said, dispirited. "That's not going to be easy. You're a mage- you know how much mages have to keep their abilities hidden." "Do not worry, my friend. The reason this is going to be so easy is because I'm a mage." Tanuin laughed at the confused expression on Taj's face, and then she sobered. "You're not the only one with contacts all over the place, you know!"

    It turned out that Tanuin had a mage friend living in Kosha, by the name of Illien. It was not hard to track him down. He was pleasantly surprised to see Tanuin again, and was only too willing to point her in the direction of a healing mage.

    "I've met a lot of other mages here in Kosha over the years," Illien told them confidentially. "It's so far from the other cities that they can stay here and be generally safe from the Tyrant. I think the best healing mage you can find right now is by the name of Elvira. She's young but reliable, and will be quite willing to help you however she can. She's very trustworthy, too." Illien studied his friend raptly. "And knowing you, Tanuin... you're going to need her trust."

    Following Illien's directions, they found Elvira on a small side street. She was a petite, brunette-haired girl of about eighteen. She greeted them politely, explaining that she worked off the streets and people hired her as a healer. Would she be willing to help them with a particular task? Of course, she said.

    "It's not going to be like most things you do," Tanuin warned the young healer. "Will you come with us? We don't want to be overheard."

    Surprised, Elvira followed them down a short alley, away from the people on the streets. She looked at the two people questioningly, waiting for an explanation.

    "I understand that most of your healing would be done by conventional methods," Taj said quietly. "But we've also heard that some of your healing is not done by orthodox methods- namely, you use magic."

    Elvira's expression changed from confused to suspicious in a second. "How do you know I'm a mage?" she hissed. "And what's it to you if I am?"

    Tanuin stepped forward and laid a hand on Elvira's shoulder. "We will not harm you. The Tyrant is an enemy of ours, too. I myself am a mage. We request your services in healing."

    "But if you're a mage-"

    "I cannot do everything, you know," Tanuin interrupted. She looked calm, but inside she was having second thoughts about trusting this young mage. They were taking a great risk in telling her this. "My skills are mainly in combat magics. If you would be so kind as to spare me a few moments, I will explain.

    "Being a mage, you likely know about enchanting something with life magic. That is what we plan to do. But since speed is of utmost importance to us, we require a healer to complete the process. You were recommended to us."

    "What sort of item are you enchanting?" Elvira inquired. "And how does healing work into this?"

    "Only a simple staff," Taj told her. "As my friend Tanuin explained to me, draining the lifeforce of a person weakens them severely, which causes quite a problem. We determined that by healing a person as the enchantment is happening, it would remedy this problem. That's where you come in."

    Elvira muttered something unintelligible, and then she sighed and looked up at them. "All right, I'll do it. There's only one thing I require- an explanation." She smiled hesitantly. "What on earth do you need to enchant a staff for?!"

    Tanuin laughed. "All will be explained in due time. We'll come and find you tomorrow, and I promise, we'll explain then. Until then, we must bid you farewell."

    Elvira watched as they disappeared down they alley and around the corner. She realized her heart was racing. What had she got herself into?

    As promised, Roth had the hollow staff ready for them the following day. He refused that they pay him for it, claiming that an adventure was payment enough. Gathering together his possessions, the three departed to find Elvira.

    Roth was curious to see what Taj and Tanuin were planning on doing with the staff, as they still hadn't explained. They decided to explain to him and Elvira at the same time.

    Elvira was waiting in the same spot that she had been in the day before. She greeted them hesitantly, looking Roth over carefully. The addition of a third person seemed to make her nervous. "So, where are we going to do this?" she inquired.

    "Not in public," Tanuin said immediately. "Is there any place near here that we could do it and not be seen?"

    Roth considered that. "Probably not. You'll want to go outside Kosha, I expect."

    Taj nodded, and gathering up their packs and the staff, they exited Kosha and entered the woods. Out in front of the city walls, the guards could easily see what they were doing.

    Finally out of sight, Tanuin began explaining. "We're going to draw Taj's lifeforce out and enchant this staff with it. Elvira, while I'm doing that, I need you to be magically healing Taj, so that he doesn't become too weak. Don't necessarily focus on a certain area as you normally would- just be generally strengthening him and replenishing health."

    "And once we finish the enchantment," Taj continued, "we're going to be using it as a weapon against some undead. Roth and Elvira, I believe you both know about Abydos?"

    They nodded. "All right then," Taj said. "Well, we're going to use this against Tavara. Right now I won't say why; that'll be for later. But the reason we're using life magic is because it's most effective against undead."

    Elvira was about to ask if that meant whether Tavara was undead or not, but she caught herself. "I'm ready, then," she said instead, and flashed a worried grin. "Nervous, but still ready."

    "And I, as well," Taj said. He took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and held the hollow wooden staff out in front of him.

    Tanuin stepped forward and gripped the staff in both hands. She began to concentrate intensely, and one could almost feel the power hanging in the air. Immediately Elvira came forward and laid a hand on each of Taj's shoulders.

    Roth, who was watching, saw a white light come from Taj's hands and flood into the hollow part of the staff. It gradually grew until it became a solid, glowing tube. It cast flickering shadows on the leaves in the darkness of the forest. The tube of light filled the staff until the ends were visible on each side.

    Everything surrounding the four seemed dark in comparison to the vividness of the lifeforce draining from Taj. It melded into the wood; flowed up into Tanuin and Elvira's arms; and at points even cast small tendrils into the air like crackling electricity. The force of it was astounding.

    Although it was only a minute or two, it seemed like eternity until Tanuin finally released her grip on the staff and drew back, panting. Taj gasped and dropped the staff onto the ground as if it had burnt him- which indeed, it almost had.

    "It's hot!" he exclaimed. "I didn't notice it while the enchantment was happening, but as soon as Tanuin let go, I felt it."

    Blinking in surprise, Elvira drew her hands back. She was breathing heavily. "What a strange feeling," she said, stunned. "I could feel his lifeforce in me as I healed him."

    Tanuin nodded. "As could I, and I agree, it's a very odd sensation. It's been a long time since I enchanted an item like this." Plucking the staff lightly from the ground, she magically sealed the ends so the tube of Taj's lifeforce disappeared from sight, yet the wood still glowed slightly.

    Roth had stood back to watch, and now he was looking at the staff in bewilderment. "Never thought I'd see one of my creations become enchanted with somebody's life," he murmured.

    Taj looked over at the carpenter. "Are you saying I need to get a life?" he queried, pretending to be insulted.

    There was a moment of silence, then all four started laughing, the tension of the situation suddenly broken. "Oh," Elvira gasped, trying to catch her breath and stop laughing, "you have a life, Taj, but it's just contained somewhere else!"

    Eventually they sobered up and stopped laughing. Taj took the staff from Tanuin's hands and studied it reflectively. He held it above his head and the sunlight trickling through the forest canopy cast reflections off of the shimmering surface. "The force of my life is contained inside here, and with it, I hope to defeat Tavara and rid Cythera of his dark ways. Therefore I christen this staff Fate's Hammer, and may it be the sign of our fate, whether we live or die."

    The four looked up at the staff, sparkling in the light. It was beautiful, yet it was meant to be a tool of war. Perhaps it was symbolistic of life- wonderful yet terrible at the same time.

    Elvira was the first to speak. "I don't know how, or why, but suddenly I feel as if I know all four of you. I suppose it's because we're all part of this single item now. We all made part of it, and now we're a mixture of one. I feel like I'm a part of you now."

    "I feel the same way," Tanuin said solemnly. "Elvira, as you were a part of this, I think it's only fair that we invite you to travel with us to Abydos. You don't have to come, of course, but it would not be complete without any one of us."

    "Are you serious?" Elvira asked, her eyes sparkling happily. "I would be honoured to travel with you. I know that I might well be endangering my life, but there is nothing here for me. I think my fate is already decided. We will travel together."

    And with that, the alliance of four fully different people was created, and they departed southwest to Abydos to decide their final fate.

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