THE LAST AMATEUR
by John Syron, posted on November 21st, 2004
Chapter 1 ~ Chapter 2 ~ Chapter 3 ~ Chapter 4 ~ Chapter 5: An Ending
Years later, settled in a vicarage outside of Caladon, Perriman Smythe would reminisce to his children about the days he followed Malan Wetherby and his company of adventurers. “Not for money, not for glory…and definitely not for Tarant. Malan was a remarkable man. Last of the warrior mages, I should think. But the time I most remember was the day we finally defeated the Lord of the Damned….”
As it did every morning, the cries of the stevedores and gulls woke Perriman Smythe. He sat up from his cot inside the partitioned room within Malan’s warehouse. Smythe had been an early riser ever since his years of study in the mage monastery of Tulla, but he knew that Dante would be up even sooner. The crusty hedge-priest on the other side of the mica partition was probably even now meditating or sharpening his axe—maybe both. A quick washup from the basin and Smythe strode downstairs. Pausing at the window, he was glad once again that Malan had chosen the warehouse as his base; Tarant’s omnipresent soot couldn’t compete with the strait’s fresh air.
The morning prayers of Virgil, Malan’s chronicler and oldest friend could also be faintly heard. “No old age, no end of old age, no path, no wisdom, nothing to win, no way to win it, no birth, no death….Make me your instrument, Nasrudin, and help me to help the Living One.” Smythe smiled faintly at the Whytechurch accent of which Virgil would always have a trace. It was said that everyone born within earshot of the Caladon cathedral had it, and the former thief was no exception.
The warehouse’s main floor stretched before him, massive oak beams overhead. After cleaning out the vermin a dozen years before, Malan had left much of the building empty save for the chests and barred enclosures lining the walls. As ever, Smythe found himself looking away from the barred rooms despite himself, a result of the powerful but subtle wards that Malan had left in place. Instead of meeting spectacular attacks by golems or other guardians, would-be thieves would find they simply could not focus their interest on the storerooms.
The Boss, as Dante termed him, was a notorious packrat. Smythe forced his mind to clear and was rewarded with a glance at the weapons locker. Swords, hammers, entire sets of armor – Malan’s collection was probably the most valuable in Tarant, which meant the most valuable in Arcanum. He was known to sell, reluctantly, various of the mundane weapons he won, but almost never the mystic ones, the unique weapons that no one now living knew how to forge.
Working his way through breakfast, Perriman asked Dante where Malan and his lady were. The veteran shrugged; “The Boss’s probably still tryin to settle that factory strike. Damn half-orc savages.” Smythe had noticed lately that Dante, sardonic at the best of times, had become downright bitter and withdrawn. Virgil had once filled Smythe in as to the origin.
Years before Smythe had joined the company of adventurers, before Malan had even settled in Tarant, the king of Cumbria had given Malan the charge of getting his taxes from the town of Black Root by any means necessary. At the time, Wetherby needed the backing for his travels, so he had agreed. Virgil had shaken his head years later at the shabby, pitiful remains of a court he had seen. Although he would always be the king’s man, Dante was finally beginning to admit to himself that Malan would never finish his commission and, in fact, regarded King Praetor with something like pity. Black Root was in Tarant’s pocket now and had no intention of paying up.
In the last decade and a half, Malan had become the unintentional and informal leader of the Tarant mage community. Although Smythe, like Dante, Virgil, and most mages he knew, had spells from as many as three schools of magic, Malan was the only mage of modern times he had heard of that knew a dozen schools to varying degrees. “A mile wide and an inch deep,” Dante would sneer, but Smythe knew his grudging awe of the Boss was still intact. The Tullan mage sometimes reflected that he, Smythe, was a better melee fighter than his employer, and the rest of the company knew spells such as water elemental that Malan hadn’t even attempted; yet such was his charisma that no one left the company except feet first.
Why did Raven stay with the boss, he had once asked Dante. Dante allowed that to an elf aristo, her lover’s life must seem as short as a dog’s to ours; might could be that she looked on Malan as a pet. But it was obvious to Smythe that Raven and Malan were equals. The almond-eyed beauty of the enigmatic smile sensed what he and the others had. Wetherby had been born too late, not fitted to the new age of steam and airship, yet he had been born for a purpose.
Later that day, Dante walked up to Smythe with an odd grin. “We’re leavin at 7 hours tomorrow, junior. Get your gear together. The boss’s got some unfinished business out Ashbury way.”
Perriman stood with the company in a loose line, his traveling robes on. He studied the man before him. Lantern-jawed, with a shock of brown hair parted on the side and a stern, ascetic air, Malan Wetherby in turn brooded on the three men before him, Raven at his side as always. Speaking with a trace of his northwest brogue, “As you know, we cannot earn a ship to find Nasrudin’s resting place until we complete a third, final task: defeat a cursed paladin and his knights, destroy an ancient sword of great evil, the Bangellian Scourge. Before you joined us, Perriman, the company saw the paladin face to face…but some among you could not bring yourselves to destroy him. Paladins are still paladins, whatever the current state of their soul.” He regarded Virgil with a certain amount of resignation. “Before we return to the Bangellian caverns, I have a lesser evil to quench…and perhaps some weapons to find in the process.”
Malan stepped forward on the warehouse floor. Even knowing what would follow, Smythe felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck knowing the power of the mage leading them. Malan spoke a single word, gesturing a travel spell at the same time, and suddenly their backpacks and supplies seemed to weigh no more than forty pounds each. Clad in her dragonskin armor and cerulean mage robe, Raven slung her bow and followed her lover into the Tarant morning, the rest trailing behind.
“The Pride of Owosso” gleamed near the platform of Vermillion Station as the company trooped by. Smythe noticed a faint curl on Malan’s mouth as they passed the steam engine. Tarant required mages to ride in the caboose every time these days, so Malan rarely used the “iron dragon”, as the Bedokaan of the high plains called them. Reminded of his time among the lizard tribes, Malan glanced at the cicatrices along his left upper arm. The reward for killing the poachers that had murdered and skinned their families had included placing heartstone beads under Malan’s skin, to grant him Makaal’s favor.
Malan’s spirits lifted as they left the city behind, picking their way through the brick railway tunnels and shantytowns along Tarant’s north side. Although he had learned over the years how to mediate between the powerful of that city, as well as keep his patron informed, he was never more comfortable than when on the road and away from the lace antimacassar crowd. The weeks passed in a routine of walking and nightly fires, enlivened by Dante’s tall tales and Malan’s more thoughtful recountings.
Eventually the orderly brick buildings of Ashbury appeared in the distance, the morning sun sparkling off the bay. As the company strode down the small main street, Smythe noticed an enormous dog standing near the waterfront as if to greet them. Malan’s eyes widened at the sight of the half-wolf hybrid whose muzzle was beginning to grey. “You’re still alive, Dog?,” he remarked with pleasure. After questioning passing townsfolk, Malan related to Smythe the story of how he had rescued the abused dog years ago, more dead than alive after being beaten by his gnome owner with a chain. Malan had had to kill that worthy in the process. In the years since, Dog had become the town dog, fed and sheltered in return for keeping a watchful eye.
Dog recognized Malan’s scent immediately and seemed to think himself their guide to the winding mountain path already well known to Virgil and Dante. Raven’s serene face became grave as she recognized the castle at the top of the mountain, though she and Smythe had joined the band of adventurers a few years after the last battle here. Smythe saw the hackles raised on Dog’s broad back as the animal turned back toward town.
At the command to ready themselves, the company began to unpack their battle gear. Dante whistled when he saw the orc-leather bundle that Malan carefully drew from his bags. “The Boss is loaded for bear this time—can’t say as I’m surprised, kid.” When Perriman saw the contents, his eyebrows rose as well. “Dread Armor?”
Donning his usual ensorcelled chain mail, Virgil nodded. “The real thing, Smythe. Not the painted bronze stuff they try to fob off on Tarant tourists.”
Smythe had once heard Virgil describe what it was like to wear Dread Armor, or rather to be ridden by it. The ancient garments of the undead Grey Legion, to wear the armor meant to have a voice whisper constantly in your mind—in your own voice—urging you to slay all before you. Gleaming like obsidian but infinitely more durable, the armor was at last buckled on Malan’s wiry torso. Involuntarily, the rest of the party backed away a step. Dread Armor has that effect.
Malan chanted for a moment in a nearly dead language, then raised his left hand in blessing with his right hand in the open mudra. A faint brass shimmer protected him now, wavering like the heat from a summer road. Glancing at the party’s armor, he gestured again to protect Raven.
The elven princess stood casually with her bow; Perriman knew she was the best archer of the group, inhuman in her speed and accuracy. Following Malan’s lead, Perriman chose a mystic weapon over mundane and slung his favorite chakram over his back. Malan had noticed Smythe’s skill with it a few years back and lent it to him, not afraid to admit party members could surpass him in weapons as well as spells.
Malan led them through the broken entrance to the abandoned castle. To Smythe’s surprise, the castle’s interior, however ruined by generations of neglect, was lit. Noticing his expression, Dante said quietly “Them torches are protected by a low-level spell. See the notch on this’un? The Boss marked that one years ago when we was here – and nothing’s changed. He figgers they’ll burn for at least another decade. The evil sumbitch we’re here to kill was a pretty fair mage in some ways.”
When they reached the dungeon of the castle, Smythe noticed with some uneasiness that huge brown bloodstains were visible on some walls. “What in the name of the gods happened here anyway, Virgil?”
The Panarii priest and former thief answered somberly, “Mal thinks it took one night. The lord of the castle might have been dabbling in necromancy… or sold his soul. Or both. Anyway, the guards he enslaved turned on their comrades as well as the lord’s family and killed everyone they couldn’t convert. One of the poor devils must have had just enough knowledge of the craft that he trapped the lord… the Lord of the Damned… in the dungeon. His slaves can walk the castle, but He can’t leave.”
As they walked down the musty corridors, Dante spoke up, brooding. “That poor damn mug…Sogg. The Boss wasn’t really ready to kill the lord, and we was sure enough in over our heads. But old Sogg charged in afore we could stop him and got himself killed. We retreated and … here we are now. Sogg was half ogre, kid, and kind of a lush but a damn good man in a scrap.”
They halted at a final doorway. Malan unwrapped his weapon of choice for the undead. The axe’s handle was inlaid with the shape of small skulls. Some of the party privately thought the inlay was from an artisan, others that the skulls were real, maybe the ancestors of the kites. Either way, the axe was by nature particularly effective against revenants. Fixing his people in his glare, Malan asked softly, “How far?”
“All the way,” came the response from his party. “To the end of the road, love,” said Raven. Wetherby nodded and led the charge into the dungeon’s torture chamber.
The next half-hour was a blur to Smythe. The lord’s slaves were fast, unbelievably fast, but Malan was at the top of his powers now, not the green rustic he had once been. As his copper chakram scythed through them, Smythe noted with some horror that the lord’s slaves were patchwork men, skeletons cobbled together with moss, stone, and wooden debris. Then it was surround the Lord of the Damned and cut the hissing horror down, nothing fancy.
Afterwards, Malan poked through the rubble on the floor. “Dante … you see this?” The veteran nodded. “Bear trap, boss. The dwarf built that one if I recall right.” Malan turned to Perriman. “Another of your predecessors, Smythe. My first failure. Magnus was exploring the Black Mountain Clan with us when he just…disappeared. One minute bringing up the rear, then nothing. Virgil thinks he may have gone off on his own and gotten ambushed, or hit a trap.”
Malan straightened and exhaled. “You did well, people. As ever. Let’s head back to Tarant.”
Chapter 1 afterword: Part of the prayer is taken from the classical Buddhist Heart Sutra. The idea of using Plough’s warehouse as a base came from a FAQ; I’ve forgotten the author’s name. Thanks.
Virgil and Dante, noted Perriman with some amusement, could not look more uncomfortable if they tried. The mages stood near one corner of the ballroom as the reception swirled before them, clad in ill-fitting suits, hair slicked back. Smythe fitted in no better with the cream of Tarant, but had learned more self-possession in his acolyte days. He looked for the host, spotting him deep in conversation with Wetherby on the other side of the room.
Malan’s posture was respectful as he nodded at one of his patron’s points but in no way subservient. Smythe still couldn’t get used to seeing Raven in a dress, though he had to admit that the green silk gown brushing the floor was suited to her. As ever, she radiated calm even in the midst of the “new people” chattering around her. Perriman studied them, these jumped-up merchants who had years before assumed control in Tarant while the landed gentry weren’t looking. Smythe sensed their power, based on steam and trade rather than land, would prove more durable than the old money who seemed to devote more of their time to cards and the hunt.
Finally breaking away from Gilbert Bates’ latest story, Malan and Raven shouldered back to the others. Though he needed the industrialist’s money less and less in recent years, Malan hadn’t forgotten the man who had funded him almost since the day he had arrived from the country, the sole survivor of the first airship crash. The company knew all too well that in the modern world, there was no limit to how far you could fall.
Bates, who everyone thought of as the father of practical steam and who did little to discourage the notion, was an aging gnome of a man. His eyes hinted at the boy he had once been, the rustic who had stolen the secrets of steam from the dwarves but was now haunted by the knowledge of what he had done. When Malan had shown up one day with his tale of the fate of those dwarves, Bates’ conscience had been reawakened. Malan’s only fear was that Bates would die of old age before he could find the surviving members of the Black Mountain clan.
His arm linked with Raven’s, Malan looked to be if any a few years older than his mid-thirties, his crows’ feet and weathered face deceptive. The sole hint of his mage status was the staff he bore. “Permission to ditch this here monkey jacket, Boss?” grumbled Dante, and with small smile, Wetherby nodded. The party thankfully left the industrialist’s mansion for the docklands. Tarant, the tarantula, the Spider Queen to whom all webs lead.
Wetherby stood in the warehouse’s training room, encircled by twelve hardwood practice dummies. They varied in size from halfling to giant, and were unadorned little more than trees with the bark off. Smythe watched from one end of the broad room, having finished his own daily spell studies. Stripped to the waist, Virgil began a rhythm on the huge thunder drum and Malan moved into his first form, the Earth style. Crushing imaginary demons underfoot with his left leg, than the right, he attacked the first dummy with the linear motion of the Earth form. At a word, Malan had the strength of the Earth and splintered one arm of the hardwood.
Smythe felt his own heartbeat accelerating with the drum as Malan switched to the Fire form with its aggressive, kick-focused circular attack. Standing next to Virgil, Raven began singing to help Malan pace himself. To Perriman’s ears, Raven’s elven song was both discordant and beautiful at the same time in its quarter-tones.
Malan flowed in turn into the Air form, then Water as he finished the last of the practice dummies. Smythe knew Malan had no spells of that school -- that was Raven’s specialty -- but he noted his leader had all the wiry strength of a Water mage anyway. Raven had switched to a single-string instrument by then, and Malan’s soft-focus attacks matched its meditative five-tone scales.
“Time to wash up, Mal,” said Virgil, throwing his friend a towel. Malan’s eyes focused and his fast breathing slowed somewhat. He nodded and followed Raven into his quarters. Smythe turned back down the stairs.
In the washroom of their quarters, Malan and Raven faced each other, naked and slicked with sweat. Malan saw a woman as perfect and unchanging as they day they had met in the treetop city of Qintarra. Too quickly to follow, she shifted into her elemental form. It was as if Malan saw a woman of water, the celadon Pewabic tiles shimmering through the other side. He closed his eyes as the water embraced him, like falling into a pool at body heat.
Raven reformed before him. He smiled and drew her close.
Although it was late summer, Stillwater already had the chill air of the mountains. Snow lay under the aspens of the frontier town famous for the quality of its blades, one of which already resided in Dante’s packs. The company trudged past the town’s other claim to fame, a crudely-hewn statue of the Stillwater Giant. Grizzly-bear sized with antlers, it was more quaint than impressive to Smythe as the Tullan mage walked by.
Malan Wetherby stopped at the massive door of the largest structure in town, barnlike and faced with fieldstones. Smythe expected to find a church when they entered the dim interior, but was surprised to see brightly-colored body pillows strewn across the oak floor. “From the Ladies of the Stillwater Altar Guild,” read the embroidery on one. Grinning at Perriman Smythe, Dante muttered, “You’re gonna like this one, kid,” but refused to elaborate.
The company walked into an enclosed garden. At the far end was a three-sided shed protecting the reason for the community’s building. Smythe gazed at the impossibly voluptuous idol carved of amber. She had three faces -- girl, woman, and crone. Malan searched among the garden until, with some china-blue flowers in hand, he straightened and moved to the altar.
“Tradescantia geshtianna … Passionwort,” came a sultry voice behind Smythe. He turned and was transfixed by one of the most striking women he had seen. Red-haired, mature in years, the priestess was clad in winter robes that couldn’t completely hide a figure rivalling the goddess’ statue. “It has been too many years, Malan.”
The priestess stepped forward and kissed Malan deeply. Raven only stood there with a faint “boys will be boys” expression . As the company left the church, she seemed to exchange a knowing look with the priestess.
As the company walked down the board sidewalk looking for a general store, Dante mused that a fellow could do worse than to settle down here. (Years later, Smythe was able to assure his children and, by then, grandchildren that that was exactly what the old trooper had eventually done.)
“Fall back, damn it!” screamed a bloodied Malan as he returned from the low hole in the cavern’s wall. Smythe was stunned to see gouges on Malan’s dread armor as well. A smell of hot iron and oil seemed to fill the damp air as Virgil and Dante, crouched low, scrambled back into the main tunnel. Whatever guarded the other side shook the cavern as it raged at the wall barring it from the party.
Malan brooded for a moment, then whirled and ran back to the dwarven miners’ quarters. The company followed at the double until they found themselves in the processing room they had so recently fought through. The bodies of undead were still strewn across the stone floor, partly lit by the fires of the dwarf’s machinery.
His eyes burning, Malan squatted near one heap of bodies and opened his scroll case. He drew out a sealed scroll whose design was unfamiliar even to Smythe, who had thought his Tullan training comprehensive. Glancing around, Malan said, “I’ve been saving this one for something special… Looks like time’s up.” With some regret, Malan broke the seal and withdrew the cylinder. “Cover your ears,” he ordered.
Malan spoke the words on the scroll, words illuminated on parchment back when the Grey Legion and the Hand of Moloch had broken against each other. The company stepped back as an undead giant slowly uncoiled from the floor.
As Malan locked wills with the giant, Smythe saw the undead creature’s bones had been partly replaced with minerals, so long had he lain in the cavern. At least eight feet tall and a half-ton of black bone covered in rags, he only stared at Malan.
“Listen to me, you son of a bitch. We killed you not an hour ago and we need you again. Some call me the Living One. Five hundred beings have I slain with my own hands. You will obey me in this.”
The giant would not move, the empty sockets in his skull seeming to burn with hate. Malan suddenly backhanded the undead thing, apparently using the Hardened Hands technique; rock chips flew from the skull. Malan glanced around. “Follow me, at a run. The spell wasn’t meant to raise giants.” Without a word, he jogged down the tunnel.
Smythe found himself running behind the titan, his view blocked by the undead thing as he scrambled to keep up. It was only after the company had widened the hole in the wall and emerged into an ancient room that he understood why the Boss had used the scroll.
If what aided them was a giant, what they faced was a juggernaut. A crimson set of armor wielded a war-hammer the length of a man. In the desperate battle that followed, the armor was dented, spewing a black-green oil, until it finally failed and crashed to the floor. Perriman noted with relief that the undead giant had also perished.
Malan picked through the chests within what seemed to be an ancient mage’s study, finally finding a journal. As the company crowded around, he translated aloud, haltingly, the archaic language of the mage until he stopped, bemused. “By all the gods…”
“What is it, Boss? Just another necromancer,” offered Dante.
Glancing at Raven, who seemed to agree, Malan said slowly, “Not a necromancer … The necromancer. I think these are Kerghan’s notes. The first one bold enough and foolish enough.”
At the name, all in the party fell silent. Suddenly the gold and artifacts they sometimes won from their journeys seemed unimportant. Malan was another step closer to his journey’s end.
Chapter 2 afterword: The speech by Malan to the undead giant is partly inspired by “Lawrence of Arabia” (one of Anthony Quinn’s speeches). The reference to Hand of Moloch is probably from something Torian Kel says.
In the end, the funeral had been sparsely attended. Afterward, Malan placed the signet ring in a niche of the mausoleum and stood for a moment in prayer. He spoke the ancient Bedokaan blessing:
"You who dwell in the house made of dawn,
After a while, Dante broke the silence: “Well, hell…. Maybe that old dwarf Stennar is waitin for him. They’re probably swappin ideas by now.”
Near sunset, the company sat on some crates outside of their warehouse and pondered their next move. Seeing the masts of the tall ships and the brick Customs house, Malan thought to himself, This is why I love this city despite everything. From the first day he had stepped into Tarant, the city had seemed to grab him by the lapels with its crazy energy, its life.
Dante sat nearby, whittling, while Virgil seemed to be watching the dockworkers and passersby, perhaps judging who might belong to the Thieves Underground , and who not. With Raven’s hands on his shoulders, Malan turned to Perriman Smythe. “Did I ever tell you how I came to be on that airship?”
Smythe shook his head. Malan said, “Flying in the Zephyr’s maiden voyage was a whim surviving the attack and the crash was dumb luck. Any of the passengers could have survived that day, I sometimes think. But I would have come to Arcanum’s lands in any event. My design was to see as many of the old altars as I could -- the forgotten gods. I’m still working on that, a little at a time.”
“My childhood was happy. I showed a knack for magic at a early age; they told me it was from my many-times-great grandmother, a Dark Elf who had once been an adventurer herself. Her name is only half-remembered … We called her Victoria.” Seeing Smythe’s expression, Malan nodded. “Yes, one of the Dark Elves. There was an old family tale that her husband was the Bhaalspawn Jebel Musa, a cleric of the god Helm, another of the forgotten gods.”
Wetherby watched the docks for a while longer. “So only I survived. I eventually reached the city, but I found out something along the way: that I’m a problem solver.”
Raven smiled to herself, thinking of her own home. The blood of the Qintarra elves ran thin these days, and she had grown up among a slowly shrinking people, increasingly self-involved. When Malan had shown up one morning like a character from the old tales, she had recognized much of the same spirit as her first human beloved, Terwilliger, dead now these … she calculated … 85 years. His grave lay not far from Gilbert Bates’ mausoleum.
As she related a little of this now, Smythe in turn thought of Tulla, the monastery to which he had been apprenticed at a young age. Tulla, the serene desert city of the last, best mages in the world. At Tulla, too, he thought, the acolytes grew fewer each year, the masters older.
“So what now, Mal?”, questioned Virgil. The Black Mountain Clan hadn’t been exiled to a penal colony after all, and the trail had grown cold when the adventurers had tried to question the Wheel Clan, the hub of the dwarven people.
“We go on. …. Nothing’s changed,” said Malan, sounding as if he was trying to convince himself as well.
A few nights later, Dante was woken by the silent alarm. His own voice seemed to speak within his mind: (intruders at the windows. intruders now on the main floor.) Mind still fuzzed by sleep, he thought to himself, Must be out of town boys, the Thieves Underground has had a truce with us for years now. Dante was confident in the wards downstairs and just beginning to think of choosing a weapon when the assassin’s scarf closed around his throat.
Dante instinctively tried to call up a shield, but there was no time and his vision was starting to dim. The intruder whispered, “No one evades the Molochean HandUurrghkk” Dante saw that a chain and ball had appeared around the assassin’s neck; with a sound partway between a windchime and a saw, the intruder’s head disappeared, her torso fountaining blood for a few moments.
Dante stood up from his crouch, rubbing his neck and swearing, “Geshti’s T… I mean, Eyes. Thanks, sis.” Raven stepped forward, Ariel in one hand and the intruder’s head in the other. Not waiting for him to recover, Raven sprinted into Smythe’s room.
Perriman Smythe was backed into a corner of his room, trying to hold off two attackers with his mage staff and raise a wall of fire, unsuccessfully; at least one of the intruders had to be a mage as well. A part of Smythe’s mind heard a fourth assassin down the hall, “No one evades the Molochkkkhhh…..” and the thud of a body. The two in front of him seemed incongruous, one dressed as a swell and the other a half-orc factory worker. The worker gestured with his pipe as he began, “No one evades --”, only to be cut off by the garnet and gold ball of Ariel.
The last assassin hesitated, mage dagger in hand; “No one ….. Oh, sod it,” and attempted to run, rebounding off the Force wall raised by Dante. Malan strode in from the hallway and seemed to lightly brush the assassin’s arm. The intruder immediately dropped the dagger as the Disarm spell numbed one side of his body.
As Malan closed in, he felt the nausea of his opponent’s Harm spell begin. With his last strength, Malan placed his hand on the intruder’s chest and spoke a word. With the smell of electricity and viscera, a fist-sized hole blew out from his back.
Shaken, the company gathered in the kitchen after cleaning up the warehouse. Living near the docks meant trap doors for disposing of bodies when necessary, but there had never been an assault in their own home. Virgil, as luck would have it, had been spared the assault, asleep in Laura’s arms down at Madame Lil’s that night.
Fingering the pile of amulets on the table, Malan brooded. The eye sigil of the Hand all right …. But the grandmaster near Qintarra had claimed he would call off the assassin cult hired by the Dark Elves. A splinter faction?
He looked over at Dante. “I dislike resorting to black necromancy, Dante, but I need some answers. Raise one of the intruders.”
Some while later, Malan had the beginning of an answer. Apparently their journey to the Wheel Clan had been noticed by a die-hard cell of the Hand; the party was closer to locating the Black Mountain dwarves than they had known. It was time to visit the Old Man of the Mountains again, the spiritual head of the assassin cult from whom they had once taken Ariel.
Chapter 3: Afterword: The blessing is taken from a Navaho prayer.
Attaching a Looking Glass scope onto his weapon, Dante wondered aloud: "Why don't I just put a round into that punkinhead where it'll do the most good?"
Virgil reached out to push the barrel down. "Put the bloody rifle away, Dante. That's not our way and you know it. Besides, Mal wants to question him first."
Smythe crouched amid the bamboo on the hillside, watching Wetherby walk slowly toward what was to all appearances an old blind hermit working outside his hut. Malan was unarmed except for a pouch slung over his shoulder. The hermit suddenly straightened, back still turned to the company. Smythe felt a chill as he realized the Old Man of the Mountains could not only sense Malan's approach but the watchers as well. What must it be like, Smythe wondered; to see in a globe in all directions at once. The hermit saw with eyes other than flesh.
As he walked toward the old man in the garden, Malan had to admit that the assassin leader had chosen a beautiful land in which to hide. The limestone karst mountains wound to the horizon, with forests clinging to them like moss. The party had hiked past spectacular waterfalls on their passage through the Grey Mountains. Raven had had them meditate under a smaller branch of the waterfalls, assuring them the river striking the crown of their heads was increasing their mana.
Malan halted before the assassin. "You know why I'm here. Who hired you * the Dark Elves, as I've heard? Do they really believe they can bring Arronax back to the world?"
The leader of the assassin cult smiled mockingly. "I'm a little disappointed in you, Wetherby. Perhaps you're no smarter than the cattle I send out." Malan felt a certain disquiet as he looked into the soulless eyes of the Old Man. He was facing one who had served Death for twice as long as Malan had been alive.
"You've served us well, you know," said the assassin leader.
"What do you mean by that?" said the surprised Malan.
"All the monsters you've slain, human or otherwise," replied the Old Man. "Did you think they would be replaced? You know the answer, as do your friends on the hillside. You're helping to kill the old world just as surely as the fool who slew the last dragon." The Old Man sat down casually on a stump.
His anger rising, Malan said "I am not the one who makes widows, widowers, orphans, grieving parents. You haven't just killed for hire, you destroyed dozens, scores around them, like ripples in a pond ** What's so amusing?"
"Pond, you say. Let me tell you of a vision Death once granted me," said the Old Man, recounting a dream of a serene Ocean in which the dead float, too numberless to count. A communion of the dead so timeless that a mortal lifespan was as insignificant as a mayfly's set beside it.
Malan was silent for a moment, something inside him sensing some truth in the words despite himself.
While the others watched, Malan straightened and threw the pouch onto the ground near the Old Man. "It ends now. Pick it up." The Old Man drew Ariel out of the pouch.
"I took that weapon from one of your killers back when you were still sending people with some ability."
"See you in the Void," said the Old Man, and Ariel lashed out at Malan's neck in a blur too fast to follow. Malan was already twisting to the side and he landed rolling. Chanting a Fire spell, he was immediately up and running toward the cult leader. A second cast of Ariel tore into Malan's unarmored shoulder before he struck the chain to the ground, pinning it with the Hardened Hand technique.
With a single motion, Malan snapped the chain and threw Ariel in the general direction of the company. A black hemisphere suddenly eclipsed the two men from sight.
Virgil started to his feet. "What the bloody hell *." Smythe pulled him back. "The Old Man must know how to congeal time," Smythe said. "Malan wants us to hold back and let him be the one to stop the Hand."
"If he don't kill him, I sure enough will," muttered Dante, and saw Raven nod agreement.
Fighting inside the sphere of time was like fighting underwater, thought Malan, in so far as he could spare the effort to think. The old man's elbow strikes and foot sweeps were nightmarishly slow, but retained all of their momentum. Malan blocked as best he could with the Strength of Earth before switching to the Air school of combat. Although slowed too by the bubble of time, Malan now moved as unpredictably as a drunk but lost none of his long-honed skill. He blocked again; both men were using the Hardened Hands now, and the sound of their feet and hands clashing was the sound of stone sledges.
The bubble disappeared, and Malan threw a backfist that would have caved in the hermit's skull had the latter not raised a shield of Force at the last moment. Malan's fist glanced off the wavering air that felt like greased oak.
Malan backed off for a moment, noting the Old Man's face was as emptily evil and placid as ever. For his part, Malan was burning out from the mana used up thus far. With a final effort, he clamped a powerful hand over the assassin's face and summoned a shield, changing its nature with a left-hand mudra. He averted his face as the assassin blew up from within.
Staggering back up the hill, Malan fell unconscious and lay nearly comatose for a day before reviving. The party soon began the long trek to the drow outpost of Tseng Ang, the existence of which had been wrung from the Hand assassin revived at the warehouse.
During their weeks of travel through the northwest forests of the Glimmering, amid trees which made sequoiahs look like saplings by comparison, Smythe wished more than once for horses. He had heard his grandfather's stories of what it had been like when horses were commonplace, in the years before the Knacker virus. Smythe couldn't really picture it; it seemed as distant as the Age of Legends.
Knacker, a variant of influenza, had carried off almost all the horses in the world while fortunately sparing other animals such as cattle and pigs. What few horses survived no longer bred well, and were a rich man's pasttime. Gilbert Bates himself had owned fewer than a dozen.
As they approached the grotesque battlements of the Dark Elf tree-city, Smythe had time for a last thought: the new century of Steam, with its trains and aircraft, would bring back that world of transport --- though Smythe doubted that horses would ever be common again.
There was no time for musing as the party ascended to the heights of Tsen Ang through crude woven basket-elevators and carved steps. Malan had chosen their cover story: the party would be brigands, hirelings of the Molochean Hand. Malan, at least, looked comfortable enough in it, with a newly-grown beard. The party wore barbarian armor under their traveling cloaks; Raven wore a full-face golden mask to hide the true elf lineaments of her face.
As they swaggered down the decks circling the trees, not so different from the decks of a tall ship, Smythe noticed a slave pen of at least two score half-ogres. Malan's jaw tightened, but he said nothing as they strode by in search of the outpost's commander.
Dante was obviously having the time of his life, but Virgil and Smythe were scared half-witless at the knowledge of the odds; the party was outnumbered at least twenty to one. The adventurers stayed in character, however. That, plus the Hand amulets at their throats, served well enough to gain them an audience with Miin Gorad.
After passing through a gauntlet of guards, the party at last faced the drow who had ordered Malan's death years ago and who had worked behind the scenes ever since, with that patience known only to elves with their thousand-year lifespans. Miin Gorad would have been beautiful if not for the unearned belief in her superiority, the arrogance, that she evinced.
Malan had roughened his accent and language to fit the part of hired killer, successfully, but Smythe noted him studying Gorad with the same detached look of loathing he might have given some newly-discovered vermin.
Their leader began by claiming to have finally tracked down and eliminated the crash survivor of nearly two decades past, and boldly demanded additional payment. Upon hearing her languid responses, Smythe realized with growing dismay that she knew their true identity, or Malan's at any rate. It seemed to amuse her to explain the drow plan to unleash the elven mage Arronax upon the world again, no matter how many humans they had had to subvert or kill over the centuries.
"Yeah, sis, those Panarii are big on forgiveness and all," interrupted Dante. A thrown dagger appeared in Gorad's neck as she dropped with a look of surprise. "Me, I follow the old gods myself."
The adventurers were frozen for a moment. "We're for it now," said Virgil. "The guards will be in here soon."
"Everybody hit the goddamn deck and don't get up till I say so," commanded Dante. Pulling Gorad's swords off the wall, he added to the pile of weapons from the company's packs. Dante braced himself and chanted to the winds as the rest of the party lay prone, soon at the eye of a vortex of wind that approached hurricane levels.
Smythe risked a glance as the guards kicked open the door, but soon wished he hadn't; Dante threw the weapons into the winds just as Miin's guards walked into the globe of blades.
The bodies hit the floor. Dante sagged wearily as the adventurers got to their feet. "That's all I got for now, Boss," he admitted. Malan, his face grave, clapped Dante on the shoulder.
"What now, love?," asked Raven. The party knew they were still outnumbered if they had to fight their way to the city's gate.
"Now we walk to the slave pen," said Malan.
The group picked its way to the slave quarters as unobtrusively as possible, expecting a general alarm to be raised at any moment; luckily the night was moonless. At last they stood surrounded by the hulking half-ogres, who stared listlessly at them under heavy brows. Their interest picked up when Malan addressed them in the Ogre's Tongue, with its guttural consonants and clicks: Whom did they fear? Who was controlling them?
With the mage's name and location, Wetherby was silent for a moment, then ordered the party to stay put. He walked into the night, returning a half-hour later and throwing a bloody robe onto the floor.
His eyes burning, Malan spoke in the Ogre's Tongue: "RISE."
"Once men feared ogres. Show them once again why."
The group fought its way to the gates of Tsen Ang, the adventurers acting as rear guard.
"They're all going to die this night," shouted Smythe to Virgil over the din. "At least it's on their feet," replied the former thief.
The adventurers ran through the forest, the last of the elven arrows pursuing them like angry hornets. A few staggered as their armor took arrows, but none of the party died that night. Exhausted, they set up camp while Virgil's healing spells began restoring them.
Wrapped in their cloaks, with Raven already asleep in his arms, Malan thought about what Miin and the Old Man had revealed. The party had to get to Caladon next to warn the Panarii priesthood; there was corruption and murder at the core of their church.
Malan's last thoughts for the night were of the sea of dead. I choose life, he thought, and drifted under.
Chapter Five: An Ending
Perriman Smythe sat in the study of his vicarage. He had finished the parish books and written his homily for next Sabbath; time to continue the project into which he had been cajoled by his children: his memoirs. Dipping the steel pen into the ink, he thought for a moment on the years that had followed that chaotic night in Tsen Ang.
Where to begin the problems of Caladon they had tackled, including the literally demonic serial killer of Whytechapel Street? The exhausting weeks of travel through the rain forests of Thanatos to find the resting place of the very much alive Nasrudin? Or the months in Tulla and the Vendigroth Wastelands searching for a device that could kill the puppet master reaching out from the Void? He finally chose a morning not far after the turn of the century:
Spring. The Last of Tarant.
“I’ll be sorry to see you go, Wetherby,” said the plump halfling in his usual place, outside the warehouse office. “You were always one of my best tenants and all.”
Dante shook his hand. “Right sorry to leave too, Mister Plow.”
The halfling was mock indignant. “That’s pronounced Pluff! Pluff! Take care of yourself, rednecked one.” Malan handed the keys to the now empty warehouse to his landlord, and the party walked to the docks to supervise the ship’s loading.
While on the deck of the ship bound for Caladon, their good humor evaporated as they saw the factory district to the east. Smythe pictured the half-orcs slaving away inside, six days a week, bad food, bad housing, bad everything. Dante spit over the side. “Ain’t never punchin no damn time clock,” he announced.
Virgil noticed Malan gazing at the factories too. “At least you kept Bates’ boys from shooting Donn Throgg in the streets, back when he was trying to organize,” he told his friend.
Malan shook his head. “For all the good it did. He and his men still got transported to the Isle of Despair anyway.” He thought for a moment. “But do you know, I gave him a few names in that penal colony to look up, including those amazons who had escaped the stockade. We haven’t seen the last of Throgg. Those workers will organize someday.”
With some regret, the adventurers watched Tarant slip under the horizon. The mage community was hounded from pillar to post in the Unified Kingdom these days. It was time to move on. Caladon and other towns of the west had learned to strike a better balance between technology and the old ways.
While waiting for the cargo to be unloaded, the group decided to kill some time by looking at the Caladon Zoo. Smythe soon regretted the idea as the party watched the animals behind their iron bars. The mountain lions paced in never-ending circles, their minds gone. The apes sat staring dully at the tourists, lost in boredom.
Smythe saw that Malan had noticed it too. “This is wrong, Mal! Wrong!” interjected Virgil.
“Maybe you’ll have the power to do something about it, Virgil,” said his friend.
“What do you mean?”
Malan took a gold reliquary from his neck and gave it to Virgil. “This is the finger of St Mannox, a powerful source of mana as well. I want you to wear it as the symbol of your authority the new curator of the Panarii Cathedral museum.”
Virgil was speechless, a tear in the eye of the former thief. “You mean that your collection is going to the church? And I’ll preserve it?”
Wetherby nodded. “Who knows my collection better than my people? I told the church they had to not only build a new wing, they had to hire you for life. Just make sure you find an equally good successor.”
On a foggy morning in Roseborough, not long after, the party stood in the ancient ring of monoliths and waited for Nasrudin. Virgil in particular still held the ancient elf in awe, even knowing the central figure of his religion was flesh and blood, still alive when they had found him in self-imposed exile on Thanatos. Nasrudin laboriously made his way up the path from town, supporting himself with a mage staff in each hand.
Malan was in his dread armor, the most powerful of his arcane broadswords slung on his back. The Vendigroth Device was compact enough to fit in a backpack; none of the party could figure out its power source. Malan would have to take it on faith that it would trap and kill an enemy mage, but he would have to weaken the mage first in combat.
Malan and Raven stood apart from the rest of the group. “That’s the first time I’ve seen her cry in all these years,” murmured Smythe.
“She’s not afraid for herself. She just doesn’t want to lose Malan,” replied Virgil.
“That one’s a keeper,” said Dante.
Raven and Malan walked back to the group, hand in hand. “I was just tellin Smythe that the Witt girl done set her cap for the kid,” said Dante.
Smythe blushed despite himself. “Cynthia’s a good girl, Dante. Not her fault that she had lycanthropy for a while.”
Virgil laughed. “That’s why we told her getting the cure from Tulla was all your idea, Smythe.”
“So you’re going to stay in Caladon?” said Malan.
“I’m going to study for the diaconate,” admitted Smythe. “The Panarii do a lot of good, even if they had some bad apples for a while.”
“These years haven’t been the ivory tower you expected when Tulla sent you out into the world, have they,” said Malan.
Smythe admitted, “I think they were grooming me for some position of power. But I wouldn’t have missed all of this.”
“What about you, Dante?” asked Malan.
“I’m heading out to Stillwater, Boss,” said Dante. “The folks there are most as ornery as I am. Did you hear Tarant weren’t satisfied with pushin the Bedokaan into the fens, now they’re tryin to make them sodbusters? Someone’s gotta be the one to get those lizards off their tails.”
Raven kissed Dante on the cheek. To general laughter, Dante said, “That’ll last me till I get to the mountains. I’ll be the one walkin on air.”
At last Nasrudin opened a portal inside the circle of stones. The party could see a barren landscape within, islands of rock drifting in a void. The air from the portal was cold and foul.
Nasrudin lay in a tent outside the ring of monoliths. The effort of opening the portal was proving fatal. The last instructions he gave Malan had been, “Stop my son. And tell him … I’m sorry. For everything.”
“Arronax was his son?”, said a surprised Virgil.
“And on the Council, until he fell from grace,” said Malan. “But I’m not so sure Arronax is the villain behind all this. When he was dying, the dwarf Stennar told me
‘He’s coming to destroy everything.’ It doesn’t ring true that an elf would want to kill all life. It takes a human to do that.”
“Kerghan, you mean.”, said Smythe.
“ ‘ Just another necromancer,’ “ quoted Malan. He took Raven’s hand before the two stepped into the portal.
“ We don’t have long before the portal closes, so I’ll keep it brief,” said Malan. “This century needs people like you. It has been an honor.”
Virgil looked at his friend, remembering a morning in Shrouded Hills. Malan, his clothes torn, bloodied, had sat with his back to the airship wreckage and wept for the passengers strewn around him. He had been clutching a signet ring from the dying dwarf next to him, uncomprehending, when Virgil had found him.
The man Virgil saw before him now, who had become like a nephew to him, was unafraid as he went to the last battle. Like Kerghan, thought Virgil.
“Maybe there’s a Helm after all,” said Malan, and then he and Raven were gone.
Smythe put the pen down for a moment. The years past had been good ones. Virgil had sent to Madame Lil’s for Laura to be his wife; that girl had always had the knack for landing on her feet.
Malan and Raven must have succeeded in stopping Kerghan. Perhaps they had even found a few survivors of the Black Mountain clan of dwarves. Smythe didn’t think his friends had perished in the Void, though. Malan had once told him that time didn’t work the same way in the Void as on earth.
Smythe would never know for certain, but he had faith that Malan and Raven were still alive. Someday they would open the portal from the Void and return to Arcanum. Malan would take Raven across the ocean to finally meet the clan, however many years had passed. His warrior queen, who would never have achieved that had she stayed in Qintarra.
Smythe put out the light and went up to Cynthia.
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