Kassargan was at their door at the fourth hour, recovered and rejuvenated once more.
“I know what your Prince did,” she announced brightly and with satisfaction as she strolled in.
“So do we, to a point,” offered Azulya. “But please, do tell us what you have uncovered.”
“Arukala is a rare moss that grows in the deepest crevices of Mount Shantan, near Calestor. Common lore and rumour has it that the magical field emanating from the city has somehow infused the moss with its properties. Arukala endows whoever ingests it with a greatly enhanced aptitude for some aspects of Seeming, one of the thirteen primary powers of the magician’s master path. I have no doubt that this is what we saw the Prince ingest in yesterday’s scrying.
“Arukala acts like any other natural drug in that it alters certain functions of the mind; only in the case of Arukala, instead of altering one’s perception of reality, like most drugs do, it affects one’s ability to project how they are perceived.”
Kassargan elaborated further.
“Through the use of Arukala one can alter one’s appearance, how one is seen by others. Understand that it is not the moss itself that does this; all the moss actually does is intensify a power that we are all potentially endowed with, and makes it available for a limited period. As the effects of the moss wear off, so too does the projected appearance begin to wear thin.”
“We did not know about this moss, but Scald came to the same conclusion yesterday, that one of the two Kroeni men was actually Vardail wearing yet another disguise. Without doubt it was the one seated at the table.”
Scald turned to Azulya with a puzzled look.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“His accent – I realised it when I awoke this morning. The one standing had a flawless Lodeh accent, but the one sitting sounded a little odd; I could not place him. It did not make any sense at the time, but now it is obvious ... the Prince’s grasp of Kroeni might be considerable, but it is not his mother tongue.”
“So the question that remains now is who the other two men are,” Malco mused.
“Kassargan, are you able to scry again today?” Scald asked, with a nervous glance at the fiery Azulya.
The descrier shook her head.
“It is not so much a matter of whether I feel up to it or not. Today is the Day of Shadows, the last day of the current moon. I never scry on this day; there is a stricture against it.”
Illiom knew about this. The Daughters of Sudra referred to the last day of each moon as ‘a day outside of time’, an inauspicious day for any form of endeavour or undertaking. In Albradan’s broader community it was merely regarded as a day of rest from toil. It seemed that in Iol it was considered much more significant than that.
So rather than take any action, they spent that day planning their next move. They shared their knowledge and understanding about the situation thus far with Kassargan, who listened attentively and composedly.
At day’s end they concluded that they had two choices. The first would see them embark on a rescue mission to bring the Prince back home, thus fulfilling Eranel’s request. The second would be to follow Menalor’s urgings to secure the remaining Keys to Sudra’s Orb. This path would align with Provan’s invitation to visit Calestor.
The Prince’s rescue entailed an expedition into Kroeni territory at a highly volatile and dangerous time. The second option had the greater appeal, for it potentially offered an answer to the first as well.
Arukala was available in Calestor; if they procured enough they could then travel to Kroen without attracting undue attention.
“We should wait until tomorrow before making a decision,” Azulya suggested.
There was no disagreement.
“I would like to scry for the Prince one more time for I am sure there is more to be gleaned there.”
They retired early and rose at dawn the following morning.
It was the third hour of the first day of Fallowmoon. The dome above the lesser audience hall was just beginning to lighten when they gathered around the descrier’s shield once more.
Kassargan filled the shield with fresh water, lit the brazier, and positioned herself before the instrument.
“Can you take us back to where we started scrying last time?” prompted Azulya.
Images appeared surprisingly fast. The initial shapeless blur quickly resolved itself into a scene that eluded their understanding. It was a dark vista of black stone, smoke, and glowing embers.
They soon realised that they were inside the charred and hollow remains of a burned-out building.
“It looks like a lot has changed in just two days,” Kassargan said wryly. “I will shift the focus to Vardail.”
The ruins were replaced by a view of two forms lying on their bedrolls beneath an overhang of rock. The cold remains of a fire lay between them. Two horses were tethered to a nearby tree.
They watched the two Kroeni men for a time.
“Well, at least he is still alive,” said Malco. “Is there any way we can wake them up? Ask them some questions?”
Kassargan shook her head.
“I will go back three days, see where they were then.”
This time the two men were on horseback, picking their way along a trail on a mountain slope.
It was quite dark, but it was not the darkness of night. It was the darkness that shrouds the world when heavily laden clouds obliterate the light of the sun.
They spotted the two riders from a high vantage that took in the lay of the surrounding landscape. The path that the two followed clung to the edge of a steep ravine. At the bottom of this a young river tumbled and frothed.
Granite and giant cedars coexisted side by side here. Trees clung to what soil they could find, but the slopes above them were steep, forbidding, and completely denuded of vegetation.
The path climbed steadily until it ended before a single tower of grey stone. This was an octagonal structure that dominated the head of a narrow valley. It was the only human-made structure in sight.
“This precedes what we saw earlier by about a day,” Kassargan commented.
With a slight wave of her hand she brought the two men to their destination. They had dismounted and were securing their horses, leaving them to graze upon a patch of sparse mountain grass.
One of the two looked up at the tower looming over them. By the clothes that he wore, Illiom realised it was Vardail.
“Not very inviting, is it?” he said in Common speech.
His friend gave no reply; instead, he stepped up to the tower’s entrance and pushed against the weathered door.
It creaked open onto darkness.
“Unbarred?” asked Vardail, his expression dubious.
The other shrugged.
“Nothing to ward against out here, I suppose.” He poked his head into the opening. “Hello?”
The Kroeni gave Vardail a look filled with concern.
He called out again and opened the door further, letting some light into the blackness inside.
Kassargan, the Chosen, and the Riders followed like wraiths, on the heels of the two men.
“Are you home my Lord?”
Azulya translated these words as the man had switched to Kroeni.
The two climbed a spiralling staircase. The first kept calling as they climbed, opening doors onto rooms lit only by the scant light admitted by narrow windows. No one answered his calls.
“Maybe he has gone back to Lodeh while we were travelling here,” concluded the Kroeni youth, his tone a mix of disappointment and doubt.
He opened a door near the top of the tower to a room that was not as dark as the preceding ones, and the howl of wind could be heard from within.
“My Lord Draca? We thought you were...”
His words died in his throat.
Vardail tried to look past him.
“Drevilor, what is it?”
The man called Drevilor stepped into the room, followed by Vardail and their invisible audience. Kassargan steered the view higher, rising over their heads for a better vantage.
It was the room of destruction they had entered on their first visit; the dead man sat sprawled in his chair exactly as they had last seen him.
“He is...” The young Kroeni choked on the words. “Vardail! The Draca ... he is dead!”
The young man’s voice echoed with disbelief and horror.
Vardail walked over to what was left of the window and looked down upon the dark landscape below.
“What has happened here?” he asked in awe, reverting to Common speech.
“Murder,” his companion managed to utter past his grief, “of the vilest nature.”
Drevilor walked over to the dead man and touched his hand.
“He is still warm.”
Vardail turned from the ruined window to stare at his friend.
“How can that be?” he whispered. “Look at the destruction in this room; this has not happened last night, let alone an hour ago! The state of the room, the...”
He walked over to where Drevilor stood and knelt by the gleaming pool of blood. He looked up in astonishment.
“You are absolutely right. This blood is fresh, still warm…”
Drevilor shook his head and began pacing around the room.
His grief was obvious. He started setting right the several things that had toppled, straightening tomes in their shelves, and collecting scrolls that had scattered across the floor. All the while silent tears streamed down his face.
Vardail studied something on the desk in front of the slain Draca.
“Drevilor,” he called softly, but his friend gave no sign that he heard.
He spoke in Kroeni.
“Sconder was like a father to me ... no, that is not even the half of it! He was so much more than my father ever was!”
He unleashed a sudden scream of fury.
“Sconder gave me hope. He is ... was the only man I have ever known to be utterly true, whose word matched his thought, and whose deeds matched both.”
He looked at Vardail, his face twisted with sorrow.
“Drevilor, I am so sorry,” Vardail sympathised, then switched back to Common.
“Please, come here now, look at this.”
Vardail pointed to something that lay upon the desk. Sconder had clearly been about to write something when he was killed. A goose quill lay on the floor by the chair, soaking up his blood. A blank sheet of parchment was spread on the table before him. An overturned inkwell spilled its contents across the desk.
Drevilor began to read the parchment Vardail had turned over and held out to him.
“My dearest boy, it saddens me that this has to be the last contact we have in this life.
I have already dispatched a bird, asking for you to come and see me at your earliest opportunity. I know that you will do so.
Even though it will pain you to see me like this, it will not pain you as much as believing that I have become the monster who now whispers advice into Ollord’s ear. For, as you can see, it cannot be me; my body lies here. And though the one in Lodeh’s court wears my face, its mind is riven with hatred and spite, and its heart ... well it has no heart.
Under no circumstance must you approach him.
Stay as far away from him as you can.
By now you will have received my package. You already know what to do with the object it contains. Here also, amongst the scrolls within this room, you must find the one that cannot be read. If you are able to find it, deliver it along with the object. If not, then it was never meant to reach their hands.
I hope that you will read this and know how much love I hold for you.
Fear not for me, for I am no longer the one whose broken body you see before you.
I am Sconder no more.
I am free.”
The sob that wracked Drevilor was just the vanguard of many more. Vardail held his friend through his grief until it abated.
“What can we do?” he asked despairingly. “There is nothing I can do.”
Vardail shook his head, his eyes distant.
“I must let Menalor know what has happened. I must warn Menphan Tarn that the Queen...”
The Prince’s voice faded into a whisper. After a while he spoke again, reverting to Common, the edge of conviction in his voice sharpened by insight.
“I think I understand what my scrying shield was trying to show me. The source of my mother’s illness is in Lodeh, in Ollord’s mountain palace. I think the one who killed Sconder is also killing my mother!”
Furious, and now in a desperate hurry, he ran towards the door.
Drevilor launched himself after him and seized the Prince’s arm.
Vardail glared at the hand that gripped him as though it belonged to a stranger.
“I must go back to Kuon,” he insisted. “I must raise the alarm!”
“Yes, but not yet. First we must find this thing that Sconder wrote about. Vardail, can you not see? He knew this was going to happen. He was a Draca; he foresaw his own end. Now it is up to us to fulfil what he intended us to do.”
Vardail reluctantly nodded in assent. “You are right. Let us find it and then get out of here.”
The two friends began searching the room.
Scald exhaled noisily.
“Is there any way to speed this up ... perhaps to when they find this thing?”
“If they find it,” Sereth corrected.
Kassargan shook her head.
The image in the shield now offered a new vision: here the Prince and his friend were outside once more, making ready to leave.
Drevilor was already in the saddle and Vardail was just about to mount his horse when the Prince’s friend suddenly shook his head.
“I cannot do this,” he said, and dismounted.
“What is wrong?” asked Vardail, as his friend strode towards the tower.
He opened the door.
“I cannot leave him like this. I will be back in a moment.”
Drevilor disappeared inside.
Vardail, looking alien in his guise, glanced around at the stark landscape. A gust of wind ruffled his hair. The Prince shuddered and lifted the hood of his cloak over his head.
Moments later Drevilor reappeared with a burning torch in his hand.
Vardail looked up at the smoke that was starting to billow from one of the tower’s windows.
“Are you sure that is wise?” he asked his friend.
The other just shrugged.
“As I said, I could not leave him there, like that. I just could not.”
Turning back to the tower, he threw the brand in through the open doorway and watched as the fire took hold. Higher up, flames licked at the darkness within the gaping hole of the tower wall.
Drevilor mounted and the two friends spurred their horses on, leaving behind the burning inferno that was once Sconder’s tower.
The image in the shield faded, until Illiom was suddenly looking in frustration at nothing but water.
It was odd, but after just a few experiences of scrying, she was already taking the art for granted, and she found herself resisting its ending.
She wanted answers to the mounting questions that clamoured now at the doors of her awareness.
It was almost as if the gift of scrying was hers and not Kassargan’s, so intimate was the experience.
“Draca Sconder is dead?” Azulya asked incredulously.
“Tarmel,” cut in Argolan, urgently. “Go to Menphan; tell him what has happened.”
Tarmel made no reply but a moment later the hall door closed behind him.
“Well, I do not see how this changes things; we still need to decide our next step. The Draca’s death does not change that,” said Scald.
They stared in disbelief at the Chosen.
Azulya was livid.
“By Krodh’s seven horns, Scald, a Draca has been murdered! What do you mean this does not change anything? One of the five beings who have held Theregon together for the past thousand years is dead, and all you can say is that it does not affect us? Are you completely insane?”
Her eyes were ablaze with a fury that Illiom would not have credited possible in one normally so poised. Then she saw how frightened the Kroeni truly was. Undina moved quickly to her side, speaking softly in Pelonui.
“That is not what I said,” protested Scald, clearly taken aback. “Of course it affects us, but it does not change the decisions we have to make.”
Malco drew Scald’s attention, shaking his head explicitly.
Leave it be, his eyes said.
“Azulya is right. This is a terrible development,” Argolan offered. “The stability of the five realms is based entirely on the Draca, and now the one who counsels Kroen is gone. The implications are nothing short of dire.”
Sereth nodded, his brow furrowed with concern.
“It is actually even worse than that. If what I heard is truth, then someone in Lodeh is impersonating Sconder. No wonder disturbing happenings have been plaguing Kroen. Kassargan, can you bring yourself to scry just one more time this day? Is that going to tax you overmuch?”
The descrier hesitated.
“I should be able to handle one more today,” she replied.
Illiom knew she was lying.
“Splendid! Do you think you can bring yourself to venture back to the moment of Sconder’s death?”
“Why?” demanded Azulya. “Why would you want to see a thing as horrible as that?”
“I want to look into our enemy’s face,” Sereth answered tersely, turning back to the descrier.
“Will you do it?” he asked again.
Kassargan’s lips parted to answer but Azulya pre-empted her.
“No! She cannot. She must not. This is the same evil that blinded her. Do you want to risk her life?”
Sereth looked at Azulya with calm, detached interest.
“I understand your concern, but surely it is misplaced in this particular instance. Kassargan was injured while scrying in the present. I am suggesting that she scry an event in the past. How can something in the past harm someone in the present? I cannot see any danger in it. What do you think?”
He directed this last question at the descrier.
Kassargan nodded slowly.
“Your reasoning is sound ... the only hesitation I have is that the unprecedented has already happened to me once; I have never heard of anyone being attacked whilst scrying. In any case, I will do one more scry this day. I will be cautious, however, and withdraw at the first hint of anything amiss.”
“As we would expect you to,” agreed Sereth.
Kassargan directed the shield to return to the time immediately before the Draca’s death.
When the waters cleared they revealed the same shadowed room.
The soft, golden light of a dozen candles pooled across the burgundy surface of the table. When their eyes adjusted, they discerned the form of Draca Sconder, seated where his body would soon soon lie. Even as Illiom became aware of him, Kassargan skilfully steered the scrying closer to him, so that they could all see his face clearly.
The Draca of Kroen sat squinting at the parchment laid out before him. His quill moved quickly, making a scratching sound that reminded Illiom of the writing room in the monastery, where the monks made copies of the scriptures.
He stopped to dip his quill into the inkwell, and in that moment the Draca’s green eyes looked up suddenly. To Illiom, it felt as though he looked directly at her, and she found herself pulling back from his gaze.
Sconder’s lips wore a slight smile.
“I have been expecting you; I am glad you are here.”
Illiom heard his words as distinctly as though they were spoken by someone standing in the room in front of her. The Draca’s smile faded rapidly, however. He lowered his head and continued writing.
“Unfortunately, time has all but run out, so all I can do is caution you: do not come to Kroen unless there is no other recourse. Wheels have already been set in motion, and by the time you see this scene I will be long gone. Menalor would have already...”
The Draca closed his eyes for a moment and then took a deep breath.
“It comes,” he said.
He scribbled a few more words on the parchment then, picking it up, he folded it in half, set it down, and half-covered it with a tome.
“Do not linger here, go. For it will know that you are here, just as easily as I have known. Be gone. Now! ”
Kassargan immediately let go of the shield’s sides and the image of Draca Sconder in his tower room began to fade. Yet, before it disappeared completely, the wall behind the Draca of Kroen exploded. Stones crumbled onto the floor and dust billowed into the room.
A thing that could only be described as a deeper darkness climbed through the rent in the wall. The thing’s eyes were obsidian, its mouth a gaping void, ravenous and unappeasable.
It fell on the Draca like a shadow, one equipped with talons, and rows of razor-sharp fangs.
Mercifully, the image faded completely then, leaving what followed to their imagination alone.
They stared into the dark, still waters for a time, silent as ghosts.
These last few horrendous moments of Draca Sconder’s life were now indelibly etched upon Illiom’s mind.