In which storm clouds are gathering around Laurenna and
Kai caught up with Valarien as he was dismounting outside an inn. He strode inside and raced upstairs, his long legs taking the steps two at a time. Kai followed at a more sedate pace. He wondered what had got into his companion as the wizard marched purposefully down a long gallery to a room at the far end.
"All right, make yourself visible, you old scoundrel. I know you're there!" Valarien snarled. "A fine welcome indeed!"
Kai noticed with some amusement that the wizard had lost his usual hesitancy. Slowly, as if with reluctance, another figure shimmered into view on the rumpled bed. It was very old and bald with a long white beard and appeared to be dressed in a sheet.
"Thank you for your kind consideration," grated the wizard with awful sarcasm. "What do you think you're doing? Oh, by the way, Kai, this is Scipius."
"Magnus," put in the illusionist.
"You mean you're planning to drag that that ancient all the way to Gyldenburg?" he exclaimed. "Now I know you're mad!
"Perhaps you will be so good as to let my friend see your true form?" he asked, although it sounded more like an order than a request.
"Oh, all right," grunted the aged one, "if it'll make you happy."
He glanced at Kai.
"I suppose he's bona fide if he's with you?"
Valarien nodded . Scipius waved a hand and shimmered abruptly into a man of middle years with long straight black hair swept back from a widow's peak. He was clean-shaven save for a long slender moustache which drooped down beyond his chin, and was clad in deep purple robes richly embellished with gold thread.
"Pretentious ," muttered the wizard. "And the rest," he said aloud.
Scipius gestured again and the room, which had been almost bare of furniture and full of dust and cobwebs, took on an almost palatial appearance. Kai was stunned.
"Jaw," said the wizard under his breath, and Kai shut it.
"He hasn't had much experience of the - um - higher magic arts," he said apologetically. "Anyway, what's all this in aid of?"
"The Grand Illusion? Defence of course. I daresay you've seen something of the problems we're having? So far, they've come in small raiding parties but, like the tides, they advance further each time they come. Unless someone can find the will and the wherewithal to oppose them they will reach the ocean's shore."
"Who are they, these raiders?"
Kai felt a certain professional interest.
"Raiders? These are not ordinary rogues. Such we can handle without difficulty. No, these appear to be part of some large army to the east. They are quite new to us. Their device has never been seen in these parts before."
"Yes, a silver jackal's head on a black field."
"The Saghan îl! It would be!"
"You know them?"
"Oh yes, I know them - I know them very well. A hoard of vicious evil bastards, without fear or pity, collected by Archduke Zervan of Sharestan."
Scipius Magnus nodded sombrely.
"I know of Sharestan. This Archduke Zervan must be powerful indeed to have expanded so far beyond his own borders."
"He is powerful, yes, but not that powerful. I dont think he can have advanced this far from Sharestan itself. Hes something of a renegade and doesnt have the favour of the Suzerain, though he was tolerated there the last I knew of him. It may be that old Zog has had enough of him and thrown him out."
"This 'old Zog' you speak of, could he not have been overthrown by Zervan?"
"It's possible of course, but highly unlikely. Zog has many wives - and many sons - and they all love the old man dearly, as do his people. A good man. Only one such as he would have endured Zervan for so long, and that mainly out of affection for Zervan's late father. No, I suspect he may have set up a power base somewhere beyond the borders of Sharestan - in Ashq'arat maybe, or Cheratolia, or maybe even Volasnia - the nearer the better really. He would need less strength to reach here."
"This is useful information indeed. You give us cause to hope."
"Hope? But your town is already destroyed."
Kai was puzzled. The wizard and the illusionist exchanged knowing looks.
"Did I not call it the Grand Illusion?" asked Scipius Magnus with simple pride. Kai stood rooted to the spot like a waxwork as his mind, with great reluctance, took in the magnitude of what he had seen, or rather, not seen. To hide an entire town . . . !
Somehow he managed to keep his jaws clamped together. He was getting just a trifle fed up with appearing like a country hick. Sure, he'd come across magic before - hell, half his belongings possessed some enchantment or other - but never anything of this calibre or on this scale. He pulled himself together and found both his companions watching him in some amusement.
"Mind stopped - um - boggling, Kai," asked the wizard pleasantly. "I was afraid your eyes were going to - um - burst out of their sockets."
Kai glowered at him.
"Don't ride the boy, Valarien," said Scipius Magnus, in a tone of gentle rebuke. "To one unused to the ways of the Greater Magics, it must come as something of a shock. I thought he took it very well really. When I first settled here I wasn't at all popular you know. Gradually I have become accepted but there were still a few who opposed my plan to cloak the whole town in illusion. Once they realized that the town would appear quite normal to those who live here, they became reconciled however."
"Oh, yes," he continued seeing Kai's eyes involuntarily widening again, "the town is still inhabited. Most of the garrison have gone off with Lord Florian to try to stem the tide of course, plus as many able-bodied men as could be spared from the land, but the majority are still here. The Grand Illusion is both visual and auditory."
"It's not quite perfect though," Kai pointed out. "I daresay workers of magic arent so familiar with the gorier side of warfare but if you want to convince a fighter that there's been a battle - at the entrance to the keep for instance - you really should have a few dried blood stains around."
The illusionist looked much struck.
"Quite right!" he agreed. "I have been paying too much attention to artistry and not enough to practicality. Excuse me a moment."
He closed his eyes and began chanting in a mellifluous tongue quite different from that used by Valarien. It didn't take long but Scipius Magnus seemed tired afterwards.
"Please excuse me. I must rest. Sustaining the Grand Illusion takes a deal of energy as you may imagine. You will stay here overnight I presume?"
"The two rooms to the right of the corridor are available. Ah yes. I must do something about that. I can't work you into the illusion, I'm afraid, but I can create a sphere of true-seeing around you."
He uttered a short incantation and gestured around them. There was no apparent change as Scipius Magnus had already dropped the illusion in his own room.
Kai wondered if the spell had worked but when a pretty young maid came in answer to the summoning bell, he discovered that it had. The girl stopped sharply on the threshold, surprised to see the newcomers. She entered slowly, eyeing them in a frank manner that showed she believed they could not see her. She suddenly became aware that both yokels were looking straight at her face and blushed.
"Yes my dear, they can see you but they are friends. Perhaps I should redress the balance a little."
The illusionist waved a hand in a dismissive gesture and the visitors appeared in their true form.
"Did you have to do that?" grumbled Valarien.
"It's my spell - in case you'd forgotten. You can put it back later if you feel the need. Not a bad attempt though - for a wizard."
"Pity he didn't do as well with my horse," muttered Kai.
"Eh? What happened to it?"
Kai told him.
"Not to worry," Scipius Magnus chuckled, "I'll sort that out for you before you leave. Now Marcella, run and tell your father he has two new guests and bring a little refreshment back with you please."
Kai and Valarien stayed two nights in Laurenna. On the morning after their arrival, as the wizard was closeted with his friend, Kai took himself off to look around the town.
The experience was both strange and unnerving - strange because, thanks to the true-seeing spell, everything within ten feet or so of himself appeared in its true form, albeit through a faint mistiness, but with townsfolk appearing from nowhere and disappearing again once beyond the range of the spell - and unnerving because the said townsfolk, believing themselves both invisible and inaudible, stared at him and passed comments, some of which they would undoubtedly have kept to themselves otherwise.
It took some getting used to but he soon found he had the power to put his critics equally out of countenance simply by smiling directly at them and wishing them good-day. There was some alarm at first when people realized that he could see through the illusion but it quickly turned to humorous pleasantries as the truth became known.
Laurenna was probably a very attractive town when it could be seen properly rather than piecemeal. Kai felt that it would be a sad loss if it were to fall to the Saghan îl and be turned into the ruin it had appeared when he first saw it.
He wondered who was running the raids into Lascany. Not Vashtârik, that was certain, and he didn't think his father would risk his own person in these minor skirmishes. No, Zervan would be consolidating his position in whatever place had taken his fancy as a stronghold.
Kai ran through the leading lights of the Saghan îl such as he knew them and settled on Kotar of Kheld, known as "The Butcher". He was close to Vashtârik, not because of his military abilities but because he was ruthless and savage. Vashtârik appreciated that in a man. His level of intelligence was not such as to justify putting him charge of a major campaign but when it came to terrorizing a neighbourhood to soften it up before the main assault, he was without equal.
Kai pondered the fate of Laurenna. If the Saghan îl were now fully extended and stayed to the south and east, it might survive - for a while - but if the tide that Scipius Magnus spoke of continued on its course, the town would become an island. He didn't think even Scipius Magnus could maintain his Grand Illusion indefinitely, and then
By now, his wanderings had brought him to the main gate where he found a small knot of people gathered round a new arrival. They were talking in subdued voices and a woman was sobbing.
The source of their distress was tied over the saddle of an exhausted horse which was lathered in sweat. A hasty enquiry elicited the information that the body was that of Lord Florian's youngest son, barely fifteen years old, who had been sent to summon aid from one of his father's allies. The young lad's right hand had been severed and he bore the marks of torture. Attached to his back by a dagger was a note written in blood.
Kai read the message:
The gruesome message was signed in a different hand with a scrawled letter " K."
Kai sped back to the inn and burst into the illusionist's chamber where the two exponents of the magical arts were engrossed in deep discussions. They looked at the intruder with disapproval but immediately registered that something was gravely amiss. He rapidly put them in the picture.
"This is harsh news indeed," said Scipius Magnus gravely and sighed. "He was a splendid young fellow, most promising. It is fortunate his mother did not live to see this day."
"It appears that your Grand Illusion has been - um - penetrated before ever it was put to the test. I fear, Kai, we must postpone our own mission until the - um - situation here is resolved."
"Yes. Yes of course," Kai agreed.
He had already decided on that course himself. He had a score to settle with the Saghan îl, and it seemed as if Fate was offering him a golden opportunity - well perhaps golden wasn't quite the right word bearing in mind that the odds seemed horribly stacked against them - but Kai was not about spurn any such offer. For one thing, that Lady was fickle enough as it was without wilfully giving her cause to take offence . . .
"Do you have any plans?" he asked.
" . . . Um - no."
"Well, we had actually made some contingency plans but that was before your most unwelcome news. One wonders how the Lord Florian is faring. Our greatest need at this instant is information."
"Could you not use your eye-spy?" Kai asked Valarien.
"I could but since you have prompted me I think I could find something better. Excuse me, I must go to my room. Let no one disturb me."
It was mid-afternoon by the time he reappeared and the town's bell, which had been tolling since noon, continued its mournful message. Kai and Scipius Magnus had spent the time batting ideas and information around but had come to no definite conclusions. Valarien looked tired when he returned as though he had travelled far and fast. He declined an offer of food even though he had not eaten since early morning.
"Have you discovered anything, O mighty mage?" enquired Scipius Magnus. Kai shot the speaker a quick look of surprise for there was nothing in either his tone or his demeanour to suggest irony.
"Hmm. I think I have enough to enable us to - um - make a few plans. My principal success has been in - um - locating the whereabouts of the Archduke's base of operations. It is, as Kai surmised, in Volasnia. He has acquired a fastness high up in the - um - Torath Sulari range."
"Whereabouts?" Kai asked with an awful sense of foreboding.
"A little to the north of Campesti."
Kai groaned. "Istvan's Eyrie. I have stood upon its battlements and thought it impregnable. Ye Gods, can nothing withstand the Saghan îl?"
"You were also correct, Kai, about the - um - perpetrator of the destruction we saw on our journey here. Kotar and his men are based near the - um - Cheratolian border, roughly east of Laurenna. I think they have just returned from a raid further - um - north of here."
"That would tally," agreed Scipius Magnus. "Lord Orsino's keep lies to the north-east."
"It will be of some comfort to know that, but for - um - your Grand Illusion, Laurenna would have been attacked instead. The group assigned to this area, seeing the apparent - um - ruin from a distance, assumed their orders were in error and unfortunately for Lord Orsino, went to join the attack upon his people instead. It has bought us some more time although, as you will appreciate, Kotar now knows that Laurenna is still - um - intact."
"Vashtârik?" asked Kai.
Valarien went on to give details of the forces arrayed against them, both Kotar's raiding parties and the Archduke's principal battle troops.
"I think it will be possible to - um - hold out against Kotar for some time with what is available here. Archduke Zervan is a much more serious threat to the - um - peace and safety of Lascany and not only of Laurenna. We will need a considerable amount of - um - outside assistance which is why I am holding by our original plan of sending you to the - um - Radniki."
" 'Our plan'? The one that shouldn't cause me any trouble?"
"This must be a mighty dwarf indeed, for me to risk my neck through lands that are probably crawling with Saghan îl by now!"
"You're not thinking, Kai. I was about to add that our plan must be - um - modified slightly. You must apprise the Radniki of what is happening here and - um - persuade them to join our cause."
"Just like that?"
Kai's mounting resentment at Valarien's high-handed manner finally boiled over.
"Now see here, wizard, it's about time we got something straight. I am not your fucking lackey. I am not here to do your bidding, and I am certainly not here to be your fucking messenger boy. I go where I go, and I do what I do because I choose to. I answer to nobody but me! Is that clear?"
The silence that hung in the air following his outburst was almost tangible. Scipius Magnus looked from one to the other. Kai was still seething and Valarien was looking distinctly uncomfortable.
"I think you made your point," he remarked softly and added, "I am sure the people of Laurenna would esteem it a great favour if you were to do this thing."
"I would have gone anyway," he said. "It would have been nice to have been asked rather than ordered, that's all."