******************STORY BEGINS ******************

Back
Chapter 2


[1. Larry Homer]

I was very young and foolish when I encountered the Witch of Weirdwood, or else I surely would have died there.

How did it begin?

I had just worked my way across the Raz'kef desert as a caravan guard (for I already fancied myself something of a swordsman) and was roaming the streets of the seaport city of Jadori with my pay burning a hole in my pocket. And yet, although I was not of a scholarly bent, I had a perhaps more urgent matter on my mind - a small box, bright blue in color and remarkably smooth to the touch, which I had taken off the body of a dying tribesman after we drove off a raid by a war party in the depths of the desert. It had no visible lock, yet the top portion refused to budge when I tried to lift the edge with a fingernail in the crack between top and side of the box. Nor could I slide the top forward, backward, or to either side. I might have tried to smash it open with heavy blows, but feared to damage whatever contents deserved such careful protection (for I suspected the box was magical in nature).

[2. Caleyna]

I knew the tribesmen had powerful sorcery that most people of Salara, my native country, didn't even believe in. I am a traveler though, and have seen many things that my native countrymen couldn't imagine. I had no wish to unleash the power of the tribesmens warlocks by force. There are many mysterious folks in Jadori, and I was sure that with enough gold one of them could give me a clue to unlock my treasure.

[3. Jak'O]

''Hello, young HungMao''. HungMao... I hadn't heard that title in a long, long while. The Salaran name for mercenary has always had an ironic sound to it, since my people haven't known war for over a century now. Spinning around to acknowledge the greeting, I just couldn't contain laughter....

[4. Mike Cauthon]

This was just the man I needed. Rondar, from somewhere in the deep forests of northern Salara, had taught me not only the basics of swordsmanship on my first job. Many years on the road had given him an almost endless knowledge about the different nations and people in the world, and he had gladly answered all the naive questions a young man, who had never seen anything but a sleepy village in the mountains, could think of. I was sure he'd be willing to help me this time as well, especially if I gave him the opportunity to think the problem over in the company of a cold beer at one of the seaside inns.

[5. Kelanin]

"Rondar!" I cried, "Aren't you supposed to be half-way to Edolen by now?"

He took my hand and gripped it firmly for a moment in the Salaran tradition. His smile mirrored my own.

"More than half-way," he said, "But we got hit hard by Deshta'ah raiders in the high desert and had to turn back. Morivi lost half his wagons." I whistled at that, Morivi was an experienced caravaneer and rarely took a loss.

"Are you in town long?" I asked, "I have a puzzle I'd like your thoughts on. I'll even buy you a pint to help get you started." Rondar's sharp blue eyes sparkled as I mentioned the drink. Don't mistake me, Rondar was never someone to drink to excess, but he had a fondness for good cold beer that was as much a part of his character as the two sword strapped across his backs with their hilts protruded above his shoulders.

"It's going to take Morivi at least a week to re-outfit," he replied with a smile. "I'd say I have time for a drink. The Thorn has good beer, " he suggested with a nod across the street.

Moments later we stepped from the brightness of the street into the sombre darkness of the tavern.

[6. Sk]

Most taverns were much the same, and this tavern was not one to break the norm. The serving maids for the most part were pretty and slim, or pretty and pleasantly plump. The idea had always been that men trying to look down the bodice of the serving maids dress won't notice the lightening of their purse. The patrons were mercenaries, sailors and farmers. They shared the inn for the most part, but none of them intermingled. They all had come here for drinks and to fondle the serving maids, not lower themselves to acknowledging the presence of people they say as their social inferiors.

Rondar directed me to a table in the back left corner. The angle was such that we could watch those entering through the light of the entrance and those leaving the inn. We could also keep a close watch on those staring into their drinks. I quirked an eyebrow at him as he took a chair facing the wall.

Rondar just shrugged and said. "At my age you take nothing for granted. Besides with this crowd it is better to be cautious then have your throat cut for a bit o' bronze and a cold beer." Then he learned forward "Now tell me about your little puzzle."

[7. (Anonymous)]

Wordlessly, I produced the small box and placed it on the table. He gasped.

I looked up at him with mild surprise. I hadn't expected him to recognise the box, but he obviously had. In fact, he was as white as a sheet.

After what seemed like an age, he placed his hands on the table. They were shaking.

"Get rid of it." he hissed.

"What? Why?" I asked.

"Get rid of it! It belongs to the Witch of Weirdwood, and you should have had your fill of her years ago!"

It was at that point that I felt the touch of a blade against the back of my neck.

[8. Caleyna, second contribution]

Rondar had already gripped his blade and jumped to his feet, while I slowly turned around to see just who wanted to make me feel his cold steel. Imagine my surprise when I met the eyes of a beautiful women, dressed in all black, her cloak and dress traced with threads of what appeared to be real gold. She was holding a small dagger with a saphire the size of my thumb on the hilt.

"Pardon's lady, but what have I done to offend?" I asked her with good humor.

[9. Stresa]

"So," began the stunningly attractive woman in a low, sultry voice, "you would be the unfortunate soul who had me running all around this forsaken desert looking for that." She began to scratch on my beard stubble with the sharp blade as she continued "Now you have two choices here..."

[10. Rushkin]

I quickly scanned the room to see my options, hoping that perhaps one of the patrons had noticed the young woman in front of me holding the dagger. Being in the back corner of the tavern had the disadvantage, however, of being secluded. Putting on my best smile, I looked back at the woman before me and suddenly realized that I've seen her before.

[11. Kelanin, second contribution]

Two choices?" I prompted as I tried to remember where I'd seen her before.

"You can quietly give me that box and forget that you ever saw it or me," Her blade tip slid down to press against the skin of my throat, "or you can foolishly choose to die where you sit."

My first thought was to give her the box and be done with it, but something about that box pulled at me and I hated the idea of not knowing what it was or what was in it. I swallowed and tried to collect my thoughts. I glanced back into the room - her dark eyes never waivered as she stared down at me.

"Don't be a fool Ravenna," Rondar growled from across the table. "You kill him, I kill you. You know better than to make idle threats." Trust his memory to be better than mine. Ravenna. The woman who had guarded the Sultani at last years Festival of Rains. A professional.

"I've never made an idle threat in my life." Her eyes continued to stare down at me. "Now give me that box and the key stone and I will be on my way."

"Key stone?" I asked in confusion, "what do you mean? Is that why I can't open it? I need the key?"

[12, Larry Homer}

I saw her eyes narrow for a moment, in surprise. I suppose my simple bewilderment must have been evident in my voice, for after staring at me for a moment longer, she suddenly snorted in amusement. "You really don't know anything, do you?"

I managed a sheepish smile. "I found the box on the body of a dead tribesman after we chased off his friends. That's all. I don't know where it came from, I don't how to open it, I don't know what's supposed to be inside it if I do open -"

She cut me off with a slight twist of the knife. "Never mind all that! I believe you. Did you take anything else, anything at all, off that man's body?"

I thought about it. The caravan master had insisted upon collecting most of the weapons we retrieved from fallen foes, including that attacker's long knife. He hadn't been carrying any money . . .

"Nothing. The box was the only valuable item I could find. And nobody mentioned grabbing anything like a key or a stone from the other dead."

"It wouldn't resemble a key," she said irritably. "Very well, pass me the box and I'll go back into the desert and start hunting all over again -"

It occurred to me that from what Rondar had said, my best chance of getting even with her for this indignity might be to just let her have the box. Even if I didn't accept that reasoning, I had little choice at the moment. I rested one palm on it and carefully began to slide it across the tabletop, slowly enough not to startle her into thrusting the knife a little further forward, into my jugular.

[13, Stresa]

Sensing my life was in danger I went against my first lesson and acted on impulse. As the blade slid closer I shifted the density of my skin to that of stone. The clink of the blade caused both Ravenna's eyes to go wide and a sigh to emit from Rondar.

"You...you're one of..of THEM?!?" stuttered my would-be attacker. "K...keep it, I promise to never bother you again...s...sorry..."

She backed away for a few feet watching me intently, then burst into a full run for the door. Once she was gone from my sight, I turned to my companion.

"You know you're not supposed to do that in public."

[14 Jak'O the Shadows]

(NOTE: I'd just like to mention I loved that new twist, Stres)

''Ah! Those southerners make too much of this anyways''. I moved to get my drink, but Rondar grasped my wrist, and leaned in closer.

''Do you know where you are young man? You think you know it all already, neh? Look around. You see that tall hooded man in the corner? Don't stare! That's not a man, Torgal. That's a chuntzu, a necromancer. You're in Jadori now, Torgal, far from the safety of your native mountains. Keep a low profile.''

As he got up to leave, I noticed a strange tatoo just below his left ear: a blue, hatching egg. That was my first glimpse of the Witch of Weirdwood's mark....

[ 15 Jojo]

We watch him exit the room, my arm reaching towards my drink, Randor's strong hand staying it. When the stranger - the chuntzu - was gone Randor released my wrist. I took up my drink and swallowed what was left in one swallow.

Wonderful.

Randor was right. A low profile was certainly the way to go. I wondered if it were too late now, after that display. Suddenly weary, I slumped in my chair and ordered another drink.

[16, rushkin]

It was then that I noticed a tingling sensation all over my body. But before I could dwell on it further, Ravenna rushed back into the tavern, oblivious to the tables and guests that she crashed into. Immediately she sought out the table she had only minutes before ran away from, stopping several feet from where I sat.

Eyes wild with fear, she raised a ragged hand and pointed at my heart, whispering fiercely, "How could you...?"

[17, Caleyna]

Her fear seemed genuine, but I had no idea what the woman was talking about. "You'll have to be a bit more specific than that, jaycel", I retorted, using the base name for women of her profession, a name I knew would anger her. For some reason I just couldn't seem to help trying to upset her.

Surely enough she grimaced at me, before replying "You have released the spirit from the box. It is out! I saw the shadow slide by me."

Though I had no idea what she was talking about, Rondar, obviously did. All the blood left his face as he warily scanned the room with his sword drawn.

"You fool!" he hissed at me.

"You're a fool as well, old man," Ravenna snorted, "if you think that steel can stop it."

[18, Mike Cauthon]

"Spirit? What are you talking about?" Things were happening to quickly for me to do anything but stare dumbly.

"That box contained a Desert Walker, didn't it?" Rondar finally had managed to collect himself and was facing Ravenna.

A Desert Walker... I was too stunned to move. My brain seemed to have stopped working. It just kept repeating that ominous name again and again.

[19, Jak'O the Shadow]

I remember how hard it was to still my fear and react to the situation.

''We have to get out of the inn now, Rondar said. The first thing the Walker will try to do is find a host.''

''But what about all these people?'' I whispered hurriedly into my old friend's ear, referring to the disparate crowd around us.

''Unless you've suddenly developed the INNATE talent to speak the Incantations, we just can't fight a Desert Walker. Now go!''

He shoved me towrds the door. Ravenna was already out of the inn. Once outside, in the foul-smelling mud alley the Jadori call streets, I felt that tingling sensation running down my spine again. It was then I noticed how silent the usually bustling crowd was. There, in the middle of the street, was the chuntzu Rondar had pointed out to me earlier, the Desert Walker not 3 feet from him. The hooded necromancer was holding a box very similar to the one I had retrieved from the body of the dying tribesman except for its color, black. He stood almost nonchalantly, emitting guttural sounds which I suspected were Katmos, the Command Incantations. Slowly, very slowly, the shadow that was the Desert Walker entered the black box until it snapped shut. And that's when Ravenna collapsed....

[20, nightrunner]

I lunged forward, urging my feet to take me swiftly to Ravenna's limp body. The necromancer seemed to be making a hasty exit, heading away from Rondar and I. I knelt down and cradled Ravenna's head in the crook of my arm. Rondar offered his assistance and proceeded to check her vital signs. Her body was warm, certainly she would soon wake. Rondar and I got her into an inn, and placed her in a cozy bed. Yet, she did not come around, and worry entered my mind; ever increasing. After a time, Rondar gave me one of those looks that indicated an unpleasant thought.

"You don't think that necromancer captured her soul, along with the walker?" He rubbed a weary hand across his forehead, as if in his mind, he had answered his own question.

"I don't know. Why don't we snoop around for a bit...that necromancer took off awfully quick. I'd like to ask him a few questions"

He nodded, and I sensed he'd rather be anywhere than in this room. "Yes, that sounds like good sense to me. I'll have the innkeeper tend to Ravenna...she can't sleep forever."

My mind seemed to wisper 'If she is even there', but a silenced that thought ruthlessly.

[21, Sk]

My mind shivered as I left the Inn with Rondar after talking to the Inn Keeper about Ravenna. Here I was again with Rondar stalking a minion of the Witch of Weirdwood. The last time we had done something as stupid we barely escaped with our lives, while accomplishing nothing. Afterward we had both agreed that interferring in the Witch's wishes was an unhealthy way to lead your life.

Atleast the last time we didn't know we were chasing a minion of th Witch until he revealed himself in a dream. I could still remember the misty form that appeared in my dream, laughing. He had said that he was feeling generous, so he would let us live, but would make sure we wouldn't be able to follow him for a long time. Rondar and I had spent a month in pain, moving a muscle the slightest bit had been pure agony.

"Rondar," I called and he glanced at me and continued walking "remember the last time? Should we really be doing this for a woman we don't even know? One who tried to kill me?"

"Boy," came his gruff reply. He hadn't called me a boy in a long time, and I bristled a little bit at the insult "a man who leaves a woman in such a state is no man. I thought I had taught you better." He shook his head at me in disgust.

"Tell me how to stop him from killing us with a thought and I'll have no reservations."

He smiled grimly "The Terra'mai have a small keep here to look for those with the gift and bring them back Comdar for training."

He left the rest unsaid, knowing that I would know what he meant. He was going to ask for the help of a sorcerrer. I shivered mentally again knowing that things have gone from bad to worse.

[22, Calyena]

As we approached the gate of the Terra'mai keep my heart leaped to my throat and my blood raced through my veins. I didn't want to be there. It was pure folly to think that any help they could give us would out weigh the price we would have to pay.

After Rondar pounded on the gate for what seemed an eternity, an apprentice boy opened a small window and held out his hand for the bribe. I gave him 4 gold pieces, then he let us in.

As I expected, there were young boys all over the courtyard going about daily tasks. They all wore monochromatic robes, dependent on their area of study--green for the future herb masters, red for the healers, white for the scholars, and so forth. Black was the only color missing. Black was reserved for the true sorcerers.

As a yellow cloaked apprentice led us into the audience chamber of the Councilor, I saw a furitive movement out of the corner of my eye. I couldn't believe it. The necromancer was here.

[23, rushkin]

Before I could open my mouth to tell Rondar, he grabbed my arm and pulled me around the corner of the long hall.

"You're getting careless, Torgal. I don't think we should let that necromancer know we are here. We're still not sure what he's up to, or if he has anything to do with what happened Ravenna. Let's just get to the Councilor's and see what he knows...and if he'll help."

I don't know what encompassed my mind more, knowing that the necromancer was here also, or that we were almost to the Councilor's chamber. As somber thoughts flitted through my head, Rondar and I rushed to catch up to the apprentice.

[24, Jak]

I remember stopping abruplty, a strange but clear vision in my mind, and reaching for Rondar's shoulder.

''He knows we're here. He's been expecting us even. This is a trap, Rondar.''

''What? And how could you possibly know this, boy?''

''Stop calling me that. And I just know. That's all. I have this ... hunch.''

''Are you serious? Try to calm down, we're in a Terra'mai keep, for crying out loud! What could possibly happen. Now come on. This our best chance of saving that woman.''

Our guide called impatiently after us to hurry. I held Rondar's arm just as he was preparing to follow.

''I'm not kidding, Rondar. Let's get out of here now while we still can. We'll find another way, that's all.''

And suddenly, Rondar backed away from me, pulling his sword out of his scabbard.

''What do you want, carrion?'', he growled.

I turned around rapidly, and the chuntzu was there, holding perfectly still in the dim light.

''Nothing much, old man. Only your soul.'' he said with a thin smile.

How much I would aterwards regret my cowardness at that moment... I just couldn't move a muscle.
Even before Rondar could move half a step in the necromancer's direction, the confrontation was over, my dearest friend's body laying on the floor like a broken doll, a small but growing pool of blood forming around his face.

''Keep your tears for later, peasant. He will be returned to you if you serve me well.''

[25, Kelanin]

I knelt down beside Rondar and felt for a pulse as I glared at the Chuntzu. I could feel only the slightest flutter beneath my fingertips. The Chuntzu watched me with his emotionless black eyes and slid a blue sphere which seemed similar to the blue box I carried under his robes. His other two arms hung at his sides. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself.

"What do you want from me?" I asked, hearing the echo of Rondar's last words even as I spoke them.

The Chuntzu shrugged an almost casual three-armed shrug, "The performance of a task. A small thing perhaps. A delivery. Your friend will serve as deposit on your explicit good behavior." He reached into his robe and withdrew the box I had seen him capture the Desert Walker and Ravenna with. "I will return the walker to your care for now, but I caution you not to let the box touch your skin when you use your Fell abilities. They combination of dweomers is..... unpredictable."

I felt something tingle and grow warm and realized that the box in my robe pocket was glowing. As it faded, a yellow clad Chuntzu appeared at my side. "I will see to this one while you are away."

"What of the woman? Ravenna?" I directed my question at the Necromancer.

[26, Anonymous]

"She is mine. For good."
I sprang to my feet and drew my sword. It wasn't until I felt something hit me in the stomach and throw me across the room, that I realised just how futile my action had been.
"You don't believe me, do you." It wasn't a question. He knew I didn't believe him. "Ask yourself this," he said, "When you went into that ... inn ... I was no where to be seen. You used your abilities in the inn, in close proximity to the Witch of the Weirdwood's box, and I appeared." He smiled. "So just imagine how nasty the effects could be if you are touching one when you ... show off your skills."
I didn't know what to say. I was shocked. My skills had summoned him? No! That was not possible!
"And now, the delivery." he said. "Quite simple. Deliver the box and the answer to the Witch of Weirdwood, and you will see your friend again."
"The answer?" I asked.
"What goes up and down but never moves?" he asked. Then he vanished.

[27, rushkin]

"Wha...?" I couldn't even get a full word out of my mouth before a sonorous tolling shook the hall around me. My dulled mind tried to understand its meaning but could only hear in it a mocking laugh as if by the necromancer himself. I looked down at Rondar's unconscious form and suddenly anger flared up inside of me, anger at the chuntzu for what he did and what he demanded of me, anger at Rondar for not listening to me, anger at the Witch who seemed to be the root of all my problems. But mostly the anger was directed at myself for not acting, not helping when Rondar was struck down.

I suddenly realized that the hall was empty -- the apprentice was nowhere to be seen. If he saw what transpired behind him, it's no wonder that he'd run away. I was unsure as to what to do now, though...do I continue on to the Councilor and seek his help or carry out the scheming necromancer's demands? It was a tough decision to make, one I dwelled upon as I lifted Rondar's body onto my shoulder and began walking along the hall.

[28, nightrunner]

After a time, I reached the street, slightly weary from the weight of Rondar's body, but even moreso from the mental strain and shock. Events were outpacing me; worse, they were out of my control. Now, more than ever, I needed to remain focused. Rondar's body would be a burden, and the witches domain was months away at best.

The street was filled with varies types of people, many who looked as if they wanted to help, but were frightened by the haunted look I was certainly projecting. I traveled a short way, and stopped in front a an archaic door, which held a metal crest; a crest that signified a mystic, to be exact. I rapped soundly on the door with my free hand, and waited patiently for an answer. Slowly, the door opened inward and an old mystic motioned me in with a withered hand. I entered her dark domain, and noticed that several sick-beds were taken. One patient was reading, using a small lamp to light the text. As I passed his bed, I glimpsed his face, and his features lit my heart.

I couldn't help my urge to shout a greeting: "Orwen, is that really you?" He lowered his book to reveal a devious smile, and despite my sorrows, I couldn't help to smile. What are the chances of meeting a long-lost friend? Especially one who shares certain abilities with me....

[Posted by Caleyna on August 14, 1999 at 15:53:44: Part 29]

The chances were minimal at best, and after rushing to Orwen's side I noticed a few things that disturbed me.

What had happened to Orwen's scar across his brow that he recieved while fighting the Mishka? Why were his belongings on his right hand table, when he was left handed? Why was he so happy to see me? He may be a friend, but the last time we parted we were not on good terms. Shouldn't he at least be a little bit nervous?

As I made small talk with Orwen, asking him questions about where he had been and telling him about my adventures, the mystic's assistant came and relieved me of my burden. I gave him a few coins and watched him carry Rondar to a clean bed where I knew he would be safe.

Orwen didn't even seem concerned about Rondar, and I knew that there was a trick here. This couldn't be the son of my mentor.

[Posted by Kelanin on August 18, 1999 at 16:47:39: Part 30]

Too much had happened today. Try as I might, I simply couldn't take it all in. I needed time to regroup - time to sift through what had happened and make some plans. Orwen sat looking at me from his bed. I shook my head. No, not Orwen, someone or someTHING in the form of Orwen.

"I'll be right back," I said and went to ask the mystic's assistant about Rondar's care. I found him seated beside the bed Rondar now lay in. A faintly glowing crystal on a delicate chain hung suspended from a pole above the bed.

"So what do you think of our changeling?" he asked with a smile. "That's only the third shape it's taken since it came in with its broken wing."

"Changeling? You mean like a N'esdet?" Well of all people, I should have thought of that possibility! N'esdet have a shallow kind of telepathy and can pick up information from people's minds. They often shape themselves to some stray thought they detect. It is their nature to mimic and impersonate.

"N'esdet, yeah. It turned into my mother the first day it was here! Scared me half to death!" he laughed and looked down at Rondar. "he'll be fine now, the crystal will sustain him." He paused and frowned for a moment. "Strange to have two people siphoned like that in one day."

"Two people?"

"An innkeeper came in here just before you arrived with one of the Sultani's guards. I'd almost bet the same Necro took her soul. There's a, well, signature of magic you could say, that is similar."

"Ravenna." It was barely a whisper, but he looked up sharply as I said the name. "I was there when it happened, in fact Rondar and I were trying to rescue her when he.... when.... " Suddenly the magnitude of what had happened hit me. I realized my hands were shaking. "I guess now I have to find a way to rescue them both."

The End of Chapter One
Chapter 2