In which a trap is sprung giving Valarien much to think
When Kai awoke, dawn was breaking rather unsuccessfully over a sodden landscape and the ridge was gently petering out. It was still raining steadily though not so heavily. Surprisingly it failed to dampen his spirits. It would not be true to say that he was happy exactly but his personal cloud of gloom, which had been following him around for what seemed like months, had dissipated a little. And he was ravenously hungry. He glanced at the wizard who was watching him with a broad grin stretched across his face.
"Time to stop for tiffin, I think," he said brightly. There's a little clump of cork oak up ahead which will give us some shelter from prying eyes."
They cantered towards it, salivating at the thought of hot food. With minds preoccupied, they failed to take basic precautions and rode blithely into an ambush.
An over-sized hobgoblin dropped from an over-hanging branch. The horses startled. Half a dozen ruffians leapt from the bushes. Two grabbed Sadique's bridle. Two more pulled Kai from his saddle. Valarien fared no better.
"Yer money or yer life," came the guttural tones of the leader, "or preferably both."
He gave a sadistic snort of laughter - bared yellow fangs with relish.
Kai had been taken by surprise but it was only momentary. Sharp reflexes kept him on his feet. His sword slid in a graceful arc out of its scabbard. It removed the nearest ruffian's head on the up-swing. He lopped the arm off another before its owner had time to react.
From his eye, he saw a third ruffian hurtle backwards into the bushes. His own experience with the wizard's finger leapt forcefully to mind.
The three remaining brigands belatedly realized their mistake and abandoned their assault. They took to their heels, along with their leader.
Quick as thought, Kai pulled a throwing knife from his boot. In one fluid movement he launched it towards the big guy. It took him full between the shoulder blades. He dropped in mid stride. Kai had never liked hobgoblins.
"Odd that we should have walked into their -um - trap so easily," mused Valarien. "Either of us on our own should have noticed - um - something amiss. Together, it should have been almost a certainty . . ."
"Oh, I don't know. We just weren't being careful, that's all."
"Maybe." The wizard didn't sound convinced.
They looked over the results of their handiwork. The one-armed man was unconscious and looked to be on the point of death. Kai's sword, having removed the arm, had travelled on several inches into the body - not a hopeful outlook from the ruffian's point of view. There was nothing of interest on the bodies. Kai declined to take the small amount of money they found on the grounds that he was not about to sink to the level of common footpads. He went off along the track to recover his knife.
"What does, for heaven's sake?" Kai demanded.
He hated the wizard's habit of half-saying things and leaving him dangling in suspense.
"This sigil it belongs to Glasyalabolas - one of the High Lords of - um - Daemon-kind practitioners of the - um - Thirteenth Order."
"Thirteen? You only mentioned twelve."
Valarien looked grim.
"We do not normally mention the Thirteenth Order. It is not safe. However, they seem to have surfaced again anyway. . . This parchment must have contained writing of some sort, designed to - um - disappear once read. What it is doing in the hands of a footpad here and now, is - um - more than I can fathom at the moment, but I don't like it."
There was a rustle from the bushes behind them. It was the villain whom Valarien had stunned. He was legging it through the trees. Kai plunged after him but the fellow had a head start. Moreover, he had fear to spur him on. Kai gave up in disgust.
"Damn," he said as he returned, "damn, damn, damn, damn, damn! Why didn't we look to him first?"
"A good question," Valarien answered pointedly. "The - um - devil looking after his own, maybe?"
"And dead men tell no tales "
"Yes. We must be very much more - um - vigilant from now on. As I said, it's probably nothing to do with us, but we can't afford to - um - take a chance on it."
Valarien insisted that they move on though Kai's stomach screamed in protest. They set their horses to a gallop, or as near a gallop as Dapple was prepared to go. Kai made a mental note to find a better horse for the wizard at the earliest opportunity.
Kai asked what the wizard's plans were now. He had no expectation of getting much sense out of him, but the wizard was more forthcoming than usual.
"I think it will be as well to stay away from the - um - main roads for a while. We don't want to be too conspicuous." Kai raised an eyebrow at that. "Or, indeed, at all. We do not need to travel any further east. Vashtârik will not reach - um - Ramara for some time yet, and will probably be - um - chasing his tail for two or three days, by which time, our trail will be stone cold. I propose, therefore, to head north to - um - Laurenna."
"We still don't seem to be going in the right direction for Gyldenburg," Kai commented blandly.
"Ah, yes - um - well You remember my telling you I was planning to - um - enlist the aid of several other - um - individuals in this venture?"
Kai nodded. Other suckers like me, he thought.
"Hm. Well, perhaps I'd better tell you whom I - um - have in mind."
Kai was so surprised at the offer of an uninvited piece of information that he found nothing to say and the wizard went on.
I have reason to believe that in Laurenna, we shall find - um - Ardino Eques, a knight of some renown and with great - um - tactical abilities. I am hoping we shall also find Scipius Magnus somewhere around there, too. He is one of the - um - greater illusionists I spoke of last night. He will be a great asset to our company, especially when we reach the vicinity of - um - Gyldenburg. I have a small number of spells of the sixth discipline in my repertoire, but my - um - knowledge is as a grain of sand to a mountain, compared with his.
You know spells of illusion? asked Kai in surprise.
Oh, yes. Anyone with - um - an aptitude for magic can cast spells of any discipline. Most practitioners stick to whichever one they find most - um - harmonious to them, but some of us enter into - um - inter-disciplinary research. I rather like the harmonies of illusion. I think it is a grossly under-rated discipline, and not nearly as easy as some would have you think. One has to get the - um - intonation precisely right."
Valarien lapsed into the ruminative silence with which Kai was rapidly becoming familiar.
"Is that it?" he asked, by way of a prompt.
"Your 'elite group of warriors', I think you called it," Kai said helpfully.
"Eh? Oh, no. Let me see - that's - um - four so far, isn't it? Yes. No, no, - after Laurenna, you must go into the - um - Starkamen Mountains . . ."
"Yes, you," snapped the wizard, vexed by the interruption. "I would go myself, but the - um - dwarven folk generally arent too keen on elves. I want you to find an old friend of mine, one Junak by name, of the Radnik tribe and add him to our company. Shouldn't cause you any - um - trouble," he concluded pointedly.
Kai sighed. His cloud of gloom was back with a vengeance. Valarien relented.
"It really should be straightforward for you. The - um - Radniki are very hospitable - by dwarven standards. They just - um - don't like elves much - most of them. That's all."
Kai said nothing.
"Yes, well - um - that just leaves Omanisa, whom we won't see this side of the Halcyon Ocean, and - um - Ewan the - um - Silent. He will find us. I left a few signs around, so he's bound to have got the message by now."
He saw the scepticism on Kai's face, and added tentatively, "Ewan is - um - a nightranger."
"What?!" Kai was outraged. "I'll have none of your evil creatures of the night!"
"No, no, no, no! Calm down, Kai. Calm down and listen. Ewan is not what you think."
"He's a nightranger. That's enough for me!"
"You shouldn't allow one - um - bad experience to blight your - um - critical faculties."
"One bad experience? I nearly died! Hey, how'd you know about that anyway?"
Valarien's cryptic utterances were beginning to bug him. He glowered at the wizard, but decided not to pursue the matter. Experience told him he wouldn't achieve anything other than more irritation.
"Well, the answer's still no. I don't want him in our group. Make your choice, wizard, it's him or me - and that's final!"
"They aren't all alike, you know. And they're only as bad as - um - the people who employ them like - um - a sword. In your hands, it fights for good. In, say, Vashtârik's "
"My sword wouldn't let Vashtârik anywhere near it - except at the sharp end!"
"My friend, you have answered your own objections."
"Ewan would no more fall into the hands of the likes of Vashtârik than would Kennoseigi."
Kai did a double take at that.
"How know you my sword?" he demanded, then groaned. "No, don't tell me - dedication!"
He was by no means reconciled to the idea of sharing any part of his exploits with a nightranger, but agreed to reserve judgement until he should meet Valarien's chosen one. Overhead, the leaves rustled and a small sprig of orange blossom fell. Valarien was on his feet in an instant.
"Fulgurar!" he cried, pointing a long finger up into the sky.
A slim line of electric blue light arced towards a departing crow. It fell to earth in a shower of black feathers. Valarien ran to the place where it landed and returned with the scorched remains. Kai looked on thoughtfully. He had not, so far, seen the wizard eat flesh of any sort, and he didn't think crow would be first choice if he did.
"The - um - wanton destruction of living creatures is not my - um - usual practice," he said, apologetically, "but we cannot afford to take chances."
He held the bird in his hands, staring fixedly at it. His eyes did not seem to be focussed on the bird itself but rather somewhere beyond. Minutes passed, and Kai was beginning to wonder if the wizard would ever come out of his trance. Eventually he let out a long low breath.
"I am not sure," he said, musingly. "It seems innocent enough, and yet I had the faintest impression that something was - um - blocking my mind. It was very subtle, almost impossible to distinguish, yet I feel it was not mere fancy."
He cast the corpse into the flames of their camp-fire to purify the remains, then wished he hadn't.
Greasy black smoke arose from the fire, accompanied by a sickly sweet smell. They stared at it, mesmerized. The odour filled their nostrils, making them feel giddy. They must get away they knew, but they longed to stay. Their bodies fought against the order to move. Valarien began to sway. With one final effort of will, Kai lunged towards him. The impetus carried them both beyond the range of the smoke, and sprawling on to the grass. It was not enough.
The smoke cloud was growing at an alarming rate. It sank to the ground, spreading outwards as if it was reaching out to them. Kai, still groggy from the fumes, squirmed away, dragging the wizard with him till he could go no further. Then a deep darkness overtook him.
In the centre of the darkness was a brilliant red pinpoint.
Through the ring floated three forms, yearningly beautiful and outlined with fire. They drifted nearer and nearer, weaving around and about each other, trailing scintillating veils of gauzy incandescence. Round and around they circled in a bizarre and erotic dance, beckoning to Kai, enticing and tantalizing.
Deep within himself, he knew he should resist, but found he had no desire to - impossible to withstand the untold delights the dancers promised . . . He felt himself rise up and float towards them - join in their sensuous contortions, free of his earthly raiment.
Thus unhindered, they stroked and fondled his naked body - caressed and kissed his most sensitive areas - licked and sucked, leaving no part of him untouched. At each contact, shivers of sensual ecstasy rippled through him. He craved more and yet more, and felt that a thousand years could never satisfy him.
He let himself be carried on wave after wave of libidinous pleasure, closer and closer to the fiery ring, while far away, a faint voice, which he vaguely recognized as his own, was screaming in terror . . .