“Can you walk the rest of the way?” Korisca asked, wringing her hands to get the feeling back into them. “We're just a couple blocks from the boarding house.”
Ziedon said, “I am not sure if I could keep carrying you anyway, but we need to keep moving.”
Kreemon climbed off, a bit shakily, and they left the table in the alley. Even with Kreemon leaning on Korisca for support, they moved much more quickly now, and the three made good time back to the boarding house. They were more grateful than ever that the door faced away from the road, as they slipped inside.
The three of them climbed the stairs, fortunately unseen by the landlord. Kreemon staggered into their room last. He made sure the door was shut, barred and locked. “I don't think they will forget us soon.”
Ziedon peeled off his clothing and carefully bound his wounds. Then he tended to Kreemon. “Korisca,” he asked while peeling strips of sticky cloth from Kreemon's leg, “how about you? Are you hurt?”
“Nope. I somehow made it out of that mess without a scratch… Say, not that I'm ungrateful for little things, but how did we make it back here without being followed?”
“They were probably busy dealing with the fire, and I think they did something to me that makes them think I am no longer a threat. We will see after I get some rest. But for now, we should be ready to receive our supplies and then rest. Both Kreemon and I are a bit worse for wear and could use this time to recover.”
“The supplies are here already,” Korisca said. “Now all we have to do is wait out the storm. At least that'll give them other things to think about for a while.” Ziedon couldn't help but smile when he remembered the note he'd written to the priests. If all went well, they'd soon be begging him to put a stop to the storm.
Ziedon went to his bed and lay down. “I am going to get some rest. Let me know if anyone comes storming the room.”
Korisca sat by the fire while Ziedon and Kreemon slept. Occasionally, Ziedon woke up due to some pain or another, and tended to his and Kreemon's wounds, replacing blood-soaked bandages, cleaning cuts when possible, and making sure that he and Kreemon were arranged properly to heal potentially damaged bones. There were benefits to being the son of a bone setter.
At one point, Ziedon woke to find Korisca gone. The next time he woke, she was back, looking out a cracked-open window.
The time after that, the only light in the room was from the blazing fire. The acrid odor of burning coal washed over him, but he quickly got used to it again. Kreemon was already awake, sitting at the table. “The blizzard's been going for a few hours,” Korisca said. “I still can't believe I'm seeing this for the second time.”
“Do you know when the earthquake will hit?” Ziedon replied.
Korisca counted on her fingers. “Seven days, in the middle of the night. Crazy.”
Ziedon just shrugged his shoulders and sat down for dinner. He was in no mood to talk. There wasn't a spot on him that wasn't in pain. And it was cold, even with the fire. Korisca had tried to board up the window, but she hadn't done a very good job, and the window in Kreemon's room was slightly ajar, curse the man.
After dinner, Ziedon and Kreemon went back to bed, and slept until the next morning. The snow was still coming down strong; a few inches had accumulated on the floor of Kreemon's room.
Kreemon felt like he had changed overnight. The universe was not as conflicted as it had once seemed to him. There was a balance between the forces of nature, good and evil, attraction and repulsion, chaos and order, life and death. Kreemon was learning anew what it meant to be a Zahiran. The old sayings that had flowed off his tongue automatically for years were suddenly more meaningful. “If I die,” he thought, “then I will return, and come and go until Zahira proclaims a state of neutrality.” With new revelation came new strength. His fists felt stronger somehow, in a way he didn't yet understand. He feet were surer, his mind clearer. Kreemon lay in bed, meditating over these changes. He got up once to eat some food, but then lay back down and tried to engage into the dream-state wherein he has found his Zahiran guide. He breathed deeply of the winter air, barely noticing when a gust of wind blew the shutters farther open and sent a shower of light snow fluttering down onto his face.
Ziedon woke a little after Kreemon, closed the other man's door to keep the chill out of the rest of the apartment, and went to his desk. With his door open and Kreemon's closed, it would hopefully warm up fast enough. Ziedon got a pen ready to take notes, and studied his spells. Tah'iera watched him, perched on the shelf. As soon as he'd finished, he knew something was wrong. A wave of dizziness came over him, not as bad as when the priests had been chanting, but the effect was the same. One of the spells he had prepared was gone.
Ziedon renewed his magical armor and glanced over at Korisca. Her faith in Ziedon had been shaken by his attack on the priests. It would be best to renew her enchantment before it was too late. He gestured without speaking, and cast the spell on her twice before waving her over to his desk. “What do you know about those ornate rods that those robed fellows were carrying?”
Kreemon opened his door, sending a chill breeze all the way into Ziedon's room. “Rods?”
Korisca spoke up so Kreemon could hear. “I've never seen them before, but the snakes had ruby eyes. That can't be good. Rubies represent wrath and vengeance. I hope I never get so close to those things again.”
“Where do you think they would keep such rods in the church, for storage? Assuming that they were important religious relics.”
“You really think I've been deep enough into the House to know that?”
Ziedon asked, “Will the blizzard continue the entire time before the earthquake?”
“No. It's just a couple days. The earthquake won't happen for a week.” Korisca grinned. “Look at me. Now I'm a prophet.”
Ziedon took a book off the shelf – the one with magical writings in it that he'd stolen from the House. “I need to review these writings. It will take me three days to finish. Did we set up a meeting with the bard?”
“I haven't heard from him, but I left word here and there that we wanted to meet with him.”
“I may need you two to attend that meeting in my stead. I will be occupied here. If you could ask him for any additional information about the rods, as well as if he is able to produce a map of the church, that would be excellent.”
Kreemon stepped out of his room looking much improved. When he'd finished meditating, he had looked down at his wounds and found that one of them was becoming infected. Without thinking, he had transformed into a wolfhound. When he'd returned to his own form, the infection was gone, and some of his wounds had scabbed over. He did the same thing again, and looked as if he'd had an entire extra day of bed rest.
“No problem,” Kreemon said. “I feel a lot better already. Korisca and I can make the meeting. We need to find out the status of Leera's status.”
“It would be good to know if that tree has sprouted any fruit.”
“No one's going to be there today,” Korisca said. “We should stop by the meeting place when the snow lets up.”
“It might also be good to try to meet with one of my old protectors, Tilluri,” Ziedon said. “He might have an idea where my necklace disappeared to.”
“Tilluri?” Kreemon asked. “We can check with Forgolon about him. Kori, does the church hold any animal to be sacred, above all others?”
Korisca grinned. “Kori? You know, that's not half bad. I'm willing to try it on for a while. I don't think Morenth has any sacred animal. I guess the goat and snake mean something, but it's not like you can't eat them.”
“Snakes huh? Hmm… I guess we can rest up in the meantime. As soon as the snows stop, we will go to the meeting place.”
The snow continued all that day, only tapering off after dark. Ziedon made good headway on his new spells, despite the nagging distraction of the priests' chant. By the end of the day, there was no doubt that some powerful magic was at work. Back at the Silver Sign, he hadn't even been paying attention to the music, but it now flowed clearly through his mind, ever-changing crescendos and diminuendos, almost blocking all thought when it arrived at a local climax, and one by one, the spells Ziedon had prepared that morning disappeared until, when he put his books away for the night, barely half remained.
While it was full of harmony as if accompanied by an entire orchestra of exotic instruments, the core of the music came from a single voice, that of the one chanting priest Ziedon had left alive. And when one of his spells was lost and he closed his eyes against the momentary pain, Ziedon saw the three scepters, floating around and around under their own power.
Kreemon spent the time in meditation, trying to invoke his dreams of the True Zahiran, and resting to regain his strength. While he saw the man occasionally, these dreams were much less vivid than before. He concluded that these were not true visions; he had only worked the Zahiran into his ordinary dreams.
The next morning, Ziedon looked out the window at a courtyard buried in snow. Over the tops of the shorter houses nearby, he could see that some of the main streets were slowly being cleared so that business could continue, but it would be a while before Maelbourg recovered.
Tah'iera landed on the windowsill with most of a dead mouse in his mouth. That made three mice in total. Where he had found them in the snow, Ziedon had no idea, but that was knowledge neither necessary nor useful for Ziedon's work. Crouched on the floor, he picked off bits of meat and fed them to Tah'iera until the skeleton was mostly clean. Then he left the bones for the bird to pick at, warning her not to separate them.
The two mice he'd already cleaned were lying on his desk. Ziedon got up off the floor and sat back down on his chair. He examined the mice, making sure the tiny onyxes were set securely in the eye-sockets. Then, gathering his focus to overcome the irritation of the priests' music, Ziedon cast a spell on each mouse. The last bits of flesh oozed slowly off the bones and plopped silently on the desk. The onyxes warmed in color, brightening until they emitted a faint reddish glow. Then, an arm twitched and a leg, and then both skeletons leapt to their feet and scurried blindly and randomly around the desk. Ziedon ordered them to stop, and they stopped. He placed the twitching things into a pouch lined with soft fur, and soon animated and added the third. These would come in handy before long.
Ziedon spent another day studying the new spells. Kreemon meditated, and Korisca paced around, bored, and stared out the window at the work of the people of Maelbourg. By nightfall, most of the major roads were clear, but the side streets were narrow footpaths at best.
The next day, the fourth of Saulturithagon, saw a change in weather. When the sun rose, the snow was already beginning to melt. By mid- morning, it was quite warm, and by noon, it was swelteringly hot. Head- high mounds of snow lined streets full of shirtless, muddy-shoed men, a contrast that would have been funny to someone who wasn't suffering with those men. Ziedon thought he saw a grin on Kreemon's face. While Ziedon and Korisca sat still, drenched in their own sweat, Kreemon was totally unaffected by the heat.
At least the ankle-deep mud would be easier to navigate than the snow. It was time to meet with Forgolon.
“I need to stay and continue working on a few things,” Ziedon said. “Why don't the two of you go to meet Forgolon. Please do not forget to ask him the questions concerning the House, and the scepters. Also, Kreemon, give him the description of the priest that was still standing. I need to know everything possible about this priest.”
“Okay,” Kreemon said. “We will be careful when we head out.”
“On your way back, purchase a small keg of drink with a very high alcohol content. It doesn't matter what the drink is, as long as it is of the highest alcohol level. Also, get several empty bottles and a used cloak.”
“Sure. Let's go, Leera. Getting out and getting some fresh air will be good for us too.”
Korisca took one last glance out at the snow and mud. “Sure, whatever you say.”
The pair departed the boarding house and tried to stay out of the mud, but they were soaked to their shins and splattered from passing carts long before they got to the tavern. The heat was oppressive, and the foul steam rising from the streets didn't help. Korisca remembered the frantic preparations for the Winter Fair, through mud and snow a lot like this. No, she thought once again with a slight shutter, exactly like this.
Despite the mud, they took a long and winding route, so Kreemon could determine if anyone was following them. Several times, Kreemon had to stop and wait for Korisca to catch up. He hadn't thought he was walking particularly fast, but Korisca seemed to have a lot more trouble with the mud than he did.
On the way, Kreemon asked Korisca, “Is something wrong?”
“Huh? No. What makes you ask that?”
“I don't know, you seem a little despondent these last few days.”
“Nah. It's just all so strange, going over days for a second time, all this magic everywhere, fighting priests, your… uh… dog-ness…”
Kreemon nodded his head. “I know what you mean. Think about how I feel; I'm the one that turned into the dog. Things are getting stranger and stranger these days. I am just glad that I have found some good companions to see me through them.”
“Yeah, even if those companions are pretty much the weirdest things I've ever run into, you and Ziedon are great. You know, just a week ago I was driving myself crazy with how I was going to manage to stay away from Ziedon, or at least keep him from killing me, or kill him if I had to. I can't believe I ever thought things like that.”
“Yes, it is odd that you ever thought things like that. You should let me know if you ever think things like that again, okay?”
“Uh… ok… dad…. You are a strange one, you know that?”
Kreemon laughed. “I have never really been ordinary.”
Finally, they arrived at the tavern. The place was more crowded than it normally would have been a couple hours after noon. Many had found themselves unable to get any work done, and had given up and come here. Based on the horses tied up outside, these were mainly carters whose carts had been stuck or damaged, and who decided that if they'd already lost a day's wages, they could afford to lose a little more getting drunk over it.
Forgolon wasn't around, so Kreemon and Korisca got a table and ordered some drinks. Talk was mainly about the weather and the trouble it had caused. With this latest interference in their daily lives, people seemed to all but forget the evil sorcerer and his demonic minions, but there was one man at the other side of the room who blamed the weather on the sorcerer. “There's no other way to explain it,” he said. “Have you ever seen weather like this before? A blizzard that just changes its mind and decides it's summer? Bad things are on their way.” The others at the table nodded their heads somberly, and then went on to other talk.
A few hours passed before a barmaid caught Kreemon's eye and gestured her head toward the kitchen. Kreemon and Korisca followed, and were brought to a tiny room behind the kitchen, with nothing in it but an overused cot and a washbasin. Forgolon stood up from the cot, put a burning lantern in the corner of the room, and closed the door. With the three of them crowded together, the room immediately started to heat up.
“It's been a while,” Forgolon said. “Where's Ziedon?”
“He is finishing up some research,” Kreemon answered, “so he sent us to find out what is going on and to get some new information.”
“Fair enough. I wouldn't mind a bit of that myself. Like, when will our next “apprenticeship” session be, and what did Ziedon have to do with a little fire on the north end of town? That isn't going to make my job easier.”
“The fire? Seems like some people were trying to trap Ziedon and the fire occurred when he was breaking free. I'll let him know you were asking about another lesson. Where can he meet you to conduct it?”
“Pick the place, or stop by here. The barkeep knows how to reach me.”
“Does this place have a better private room? I don't think Ziedon will want to be cooped up in here.”
“We both know he's been cooped up in worse, but space is no problem. Have him look for me at Grabbles'. I'm sure he doesn't have to be reminded that discretion is important. The same can be said about the fire. Ziedon's going to need to gather allies, not enemies.”
“How is Leera's back-story coming? Can she claim her birthright?”
“I have the papers. Now she'll have to be presented to some of the townsmen, and gather support. Converting Silnquost to your cause would settle things quickly, but that won't be easy. I'd start lower. My first suggestion would have been Velirra Dufowl, but now that the House has gotten wind of her association with Ziedon, that's just asking for trouble. I'd stay away from anyone he's interacted with, really.”
“So who do you suggest she sees first? Will you be accompanying us?”
“It would still be best if I wasn't openly involved in this. You know, mixing my reputation with yours and all that. As for whom to talk to, there are two ways we can go. We could target some of Galgewe's key supporters. With Ulan's holdings in question, they've been left in the dust, and they may be open to new leadership. I'd start with Jorran Kal. He doesn't get out much, but he has a fair amount of influence, and when he speaks up, people listen. Or there's Argol. Pretty much every townsman owes him money, so he can pull the strings.
The other way would be to go after Silnquost's side. They'd gain a lot if Ulan's heir sided with them. Reden Orfort's your man there. He hated Galgewe more than anyone, and he has Silnquost's ear.”
“I think we will start with Jorran Kal and see how that turns out.” Kreemon held out his hand. “Her papers please.”
“I don't have them with me. Stop by here later tonight and ask the barkeep if he has anything for Leera.”
“What sort of information can you tell her, that might help her pass some background questionings?”
“We already went over all that,” Korisca said. “I met with Forgolon a few days ago.”
“Don't forget that the original plan was to get Makierrei or Cewethir to support your claim. You'll have letters of introduction addressed to them, along with Leera's papers. That avenue should be taken before you start looking for support from other townsmen.”
“How do you recommend we approach Jorran Kal?” Kreemon asked.
“He can usually be found in the Common house, near the House of Morenth. That's where a lot of the administrative business of Maelbourg happens, when it doesn't involve specific guilds. I'd be patient and courteous with him, and play your roles well – he has a sharp eye.”
“What is going on with the army outside the walls?”
“An army? That's news to me. Why would anyone bother camping outside Maelbourg? Are you sure they weren't on their way to somewhere else?”
Kreemon rubbed his chin, where his scar used to be. “You don't know about the army? I warned the city guard about them days ago. They are of the king's army, they said they were here because of the unrest in the town. They were camped out in the woods. I saw them when I was outside the walls.”
“Probably just idle threats. Maelbourg's been independent and peaceful for a long time now. Worry yourself no more. I'll look into it and make sure nothing disastrous happens.”
“Ziedon was wondering about someone named Tilluri; he thinks that maybe that guy would know where his necklace is located.”
“It's possible. I'll ask him.”
“The necklace was not buried with Galgewe, so someone must have taken it off the body. Do you know of anyone who would have had access?”
“Oh, it could have been any number of people, but whatever else you can say about them, I don't think Andrithans are known for robbing the dead. At this point, who knows?”
“Ziedon did mention that specific guard, so maybe you can check with some of the people who were with Galgewe at his death to find out what happened. I imagine that Ziedon would be very appreciative.”
“Sure thing, but I doubt I'm going to find much. If anyone took that necklace, it's long gone by now.
“Ziedon would also like a map layout of the House, and any information you know about some special rods.” Kreemon described the rods as best he could, drawing out their shape in the dust in the corner.
“Hm… Round-tipped, carved like snakes and embellished with elements of the Sign… Huh. Maybe this will help.” Forgolon lifted his head and sang quietly, an eerie-sounding tune, with words Korisca had never heard before in all her years in Maelbourg.
'Andrithan lords dead at their feet, 'The Battle of Magics was near to its end. 'Held three priests of the True Lord signs of the snake, 'And twelve of the evil ones poisonous staves. 'The Song of Destruction struck fear in their chests, 'The evil ones trembled, their staves were as dust. 'Their power befuddled, three surrounded twelve. 'The evil ones fought, and one by one fell, 'Till one stood for evil and one stood for truth, 'The Song of Destruction retained on his lips. 'The evil one fled, after three days returned, 'To seek his death.
“That's an obscure one. I must have been no older than ten when I learned it, and I can't have sang it more than five or six times since then. It rhymes in the original language.”
“Who did you learn it from?”
“I can't say. I pick up songs wherever I hear them, but that's an old one, and well-known enough among minstrels. It's just not sung very often.”
“It sounds like there was a fight between three priests and twelve 'evil ones'. What is the 'Song of Destruction?'”
“The evil ones are users of magic, so I'd guess the Song is something that hurts them.”
“So, eleven of the 'evil ones' fell, but so did two of the priests?”
“That's what it sounds like. These old songs usually omit things like the victors dying. I think it was left in this time because it makes the victory more dramatic.”
“What is this about three days? The 'evil one' returned to seek his own death, or the death of the priest?”
“In context, I'd guess it was his own death. Otherwise, there would have to be a second verse.”
“Do you know of any other stories or songs about this subject, or the Song of Destruction?”
“Sorry,” Forgolon said, spreading his hands wide. “You've caught me at a rare loss. There are many songs about the Battle of Magics, but that's the only one about snake-signs or the Song of Destruction. Where did you run into the snake signs, anyway? You describe them too well for someone who hasn't seen them himself.”
“I should think so. The priests were using them on Ziedon before the fire broke out. Two of the priests fell, but one was still singing.”
“Well. Now that's interesting. Looks like more and more myth is turning back into reality these days.”
“I think Ziedon wants to find the third priest and –” Kreemon coughed into his hand – “remove him – to counteract any effects of the Song.” Kreemon gave a description of the third priest and said, “That is the man that Ziedon is after, so if you know of him or know where he is likely to be quartered in the House…”
Forgolon thought for a time before answering. “Like I've said before, I don't know much about the inside of the House. Common people aren't allowed to roam free in there. But if they're really taking Ziedon that seriously, I'd say they have the priest in a well-protected area. Either that, or they have him right in the entrance hall, as a challenge… or bait, I suppose. Ziedon sure has been getting himself into trouble. He might find that it's more than he can handle. If he's captured by the House, there won't be anything I or anyone else can do to help him.”
“I think that about covers everything. You have anything else for us or Ziedon?”
“Just be careful. Being on the wrong side of the House is a bad thing. I have a few ideas I'm working on, but they require you to keep a little lower profile, at least you two. That means don't get caught, and don't let anyone see your faces.
“Don't forget to pick up the papers, and remind Ziedon about our next lesson. Oh, and here.” Forgolon handed Kreemon a little red stone, about as big as an aglar, polished to a shine and etched with a spiral. “If you need me for an emergency, give this to Grabble at his inn, along with a sealed message if you have one. I'm not saying I'll always be easy to reach, but this will be your best bet.”
Forgolon put a hand on the doorknob, but turned around once more before opening the door. “I'm glad we had a chance to talk. And try to keep Ziedon alive if you can. He tends to get himself into more trouble than he can easily handle.”
Kreemon and Korisca had a cautious but uneventful trip back. The day was unbearably hot for Korisca, and that combined with Kreemon's uncanny ability to wade through the mud unhindered made it difficult for her to keep up. Finally, they arrived at the boarding house and climbed the stairs. A lunch of sourdough bread, hard cheese and apples was still waiting for them in their room, where it had barely been touched. Korisca set the jug of fire-water down and said, “Ziedon? We're back. Ziedon? Hey, Kreemon! over here!”
The necromancer was sprawled out on the floor of his room, one hand lying in the doorway, bits of a shattered mouse skeleton around him. Three days indeed, Kreemon thought.