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The Third Stone
There was a cove, a day's sailing south down the coast past Vahnatu, that was particularly used by the pirates frequenting the waters around the dark continent. It was not asked how the captain of a simple fishing vessel became so aware of the doings of pirates, nor was the information offered. A body could only be thankful that the Black Goose was so well versed in pirate habitude, for it was certain that pirates and black marketeers were in no wise in league with the lady who levied the majority of the import/export taxes.
The cove was small and treacherous, possessed of reefs which Captain Darius deftly avoided with the ease of a man who had sailed these waters many times before. The rocky shores of the beach were surrounded by evergreens and brush which hid the footpath leading into the thick wood. Darius himself came ashore with his passengers, guiding them down the path, which led to a small, primitive collection of structures.
Some half dozen ragged men drifted out of the wood to block the path behind them, swords held at ready, while half again that number stood guard before the pirate settlement. Darius raised his hand in greeting, calling out several names. The blades were lowered, but suspicious stares followed the strangers the fisher captain brought into their midst.
Theo was not unfamiliar with the distrustful nature of pirates. Places of safety like this cove were few and far between and guarded jealously. He would rather not have intruded upon the haven of Danarian pirates, but as his shipmates and captain Darius had pointed out, Vahnatu was not the safest of ports for him or the old man at the moment.
He glanced behind him, down the line of straggling sailors who followed to where Dharva walked attentively beside Wing, who carried the sleeping form of her master in his arms. The old man looked like death, much worse for wear than he'd been while on board the Luck.. He had slept the entire voyage down the coast while the rest of them had scanned the waters aft for sign of pursuit, either magical or mundane. Nothing had appeared. Theo did not know whether to be relieved or worried. One could always assume that the lady had not waken up from the blow he had given her, but it was doubtful. He hadn't hit her that hard.
Captain Darius motioned him forward to where he stood with a grizzled, scar faced older man. The man leaned heavily on a carved wooden cane, his right leg awkward seeming and twisted.
"Garney, this is captain Theodonis, late of the Luck from Khell. He and his have need of a safe harbor for a spell, having incurred the wrath of the powers that be."
Garney looked Theo up and down, then spat into the dirt between their feet. "So you bring trouble here, do you, Darius? A pirate stupid enough to get caught by the law ought to deal with the consequences himself."
"I'm not a pirate." Theo eyed the man narrowly, not willing to back down and loose face, knowing that was what the old pirate was attempting to make him do. It was an old game among thieves, to establish pecking order at the start, to let the newcomers know exactly who was power and who was not. Every man there had their eyes upon him and the pirate leader, his and Garney's alike, waiting to see what the outcome of the posturing would be. It was tricky, trying not to offend too much, but not backing down at the same time. "And I didn't get caught by the law, nor was it my idea to come here. So don't get territorial just yet, old man."
Garney bristled, glaring balefully. His fingers caressed the bone handled knife at his belt. "Who're you callin' an old man, you baby faced whelp?"
Theo smiled serenely. Darius slashed an impatient hand in the air between them. "It isn't the law after them, it's the high and mighty bitch herself. Caused her a great deal of grief, they did and that ought to make you more than happy, considering."
A muscle twitched along the pirate's jaw. His fingers tightened on the rounded head of his cane. "Well then, that's another matter. Welcome to our humble haven, sailors. Any enemy of the Lady, is a friend of mine."
Theo glanced back at the group of his men, half his crew who stood uncertainly on the sun dappled forest path, waiting on his cue. Wing nodded once, encouragingly. Theo took a breath and held out a hand to Garney. The pirate took it in a callused grip, dubious grin on his face.
As the group moved into the environs of the settlement a few women came out from the thatched huts. Tired faces and drab attire could not hide the sashshay in their steps or the leers in their eyes at the prospect of so many strangers. It was clear that these women were dockside tramps brought here willingly or not to be the companions of the pirates when they were not at sea. A few scrawny children peeked forth from shadowed doorways, eyes solemn and watchful.
Since the Black Goose was the only vessel in the secluded cove, it had to be assumed that the other, sea faring members of this small settlement were out and about, plaguing honest merchants. Garney and Darius shook hands, then the fisher captain prepared to leave, promising to keep an ear out for word of Tiana's actions. The old pirate limped towards the largest of the huts, beckoning Theo to follow even as he bellowed for the women to air out the bedding in the unoccupied huts.
"Most all our men are out hunting." Garney grinned wickedly. "There's been a fair lot of shipping along this coast this last season. More ships than these old eyes have seen in many a year. Ripe for the picking, when they've no escorts."
The hut, they entered must have been used as a gathering place, for it was devoid of any furnishing save a horse shoe shaped wooden table and benches, surrounding a main fire pit. There was a hole in the roof where the smoke vented and several thatch windows propped open with sticks.
"The women can show you a place where the old man can be comfortable, but other than that, he's on his own. We've no healers here."
"We've a surgeon." Theo walked to the fire, holding out his hands to feel the heat. "If you've a need, you're welcome to his services."
Garney laughed bitterly. "Ten years ago, I could have used him. Now all I got is memories of what it used to be like having both my legs hale and hearty."
Theo nodded, wondering if this man's grudge with Tiana had something to do with his crippled leg. They still stood on too shaky a ground to ask. Wing and Dharva followed one of the women out of the hut, while two others carried in a small barrel of what looked and smelled to be home brewed ale.
"Pretty little girl." Garney commented after Dharva had left. "Got the look of a virgin. Unblemished, fresh. Girl like that would fetch a good price with the inland tribes."
"So, you're slavers as well as pirates?" Theo observed, casting a narrow look back at the pirate.
"No. Just making an observation of the market. Slave route runs down the coast not more than a half league from here. Got a few acquaintances that make runs."
One of the women slapped a wooden mug into Garney's hands, then managed to brush the entirety of her upper torso against Theo in delivering one to him. She distracted him long enough for Garney to change the subject.
"So what'd you do to have the lofty bitch after you?"
"A misunderstanding." Theo had no intention of revealing to a pirate with good friends in the slave trade all his secrets. Garney was not a man so easily put off.
"You want our protection, you can give me a better answer than that."
"I don't want you to lift a finger for us. All I ask is a place to lay low for a while until matters in Vahnatu cool down."
"You're here." Garney leaned close, sloshing ale on both their boots. "Which puts this cove in danger. She could have ships out scouring the coast for all I know, lookin' for you, if she were mad enough."
Fair enough, Theo thought. It was a good point and he did not want the blood of a people who had no idea what they were getting into on his hands. "All right. She sank my ship because of a misunderstanding she and I had."
"What kind of misunderstanding?"
"A personal one."
A speculative grin crossed Garney's face, but he did not ask further.
"It came to my attention that she had something that did not belong to her and I took steps to retrieve it. And yes, she's probably pretty upset about it."
"So you stole from her."
"Stole would indicate that it was hers to begin with."
"Ah, don't semantics just irk ya to death?" The pirate cackled.
Theo lifted a brow, thinking there was more to this old pirate than the outward mask he wore. He was tired and his nerves were worn thin, and in no mood for this verbal fencing to linger. There was very little he could think of, that sounded better than a few hours sleep on something other than the damp earth.
"If you don't want us here we'll move on. If you can deal with the danger our presence will bring, then we'll earn our keep. What do you say?"
Garney shrugged, took a swallow of ale and said. "Stay. I hope the lady's ships do try this cove, they'll bilge themselves for certain on the reefs trying."
Theo only meant to sleep for a few hours, but the morning light he had closed his eyes to was long gone and the night well under way when he opened them. He heard the sounds of laughter from outside the small hut he lay in. He was on a wide bunk, meant to sleep four or five, straw from the mattress poking him through sheets and clothing alike. No one else slept in the hut, and it seemed from the noise outside that a fair amount of socialization was in progress outside.
He rose, rubbing grit from his eyes, searching for his boots in the darkness and pulling them on. The armor he had procured to slip into Tiana's keep he had discarded, he would offer it to Garney, figuring the pirate might find some use for it. What Theo discovered he wanted, thanks to the rumbling emptiness of his stomach, was food. It had been days since he'd had a decent meal and the smells of roasting meat drifted through the cracks in the thatch wall.
There was a fire pit at the center of the settlement. A pirate, who had learned a note or two of music in his varied career strummed painfully on an out of tune harp. One of the pirate's women was dancing, trailing two scarves as she spun and gyrated for her audience, which was just about every man in the village. Theo's men were no exception. He even saw Wing and Collin amongst the onlookers.
The smell came from what looked to be a whole deer roasting over the fire. He walked that way, hoping the thing had been cooking long enough to be edible. Wing saw him before he could make it that far, and waved him over. Reluctantly, Theo veered from the meat.
"Better?" Wing raised his voice to be heard over the din of music and conversation.
"Our little witch shot it. The men here are better with swords than bows, so she took one they had lying in their weapon's cache, went out and bagged dinner for us all."
"She ceaselessly amazes me." Theo glanced about, looking for the aforementioned witch. "Where is she?"
"With her master." Collin answered. "As I feared, it was veripin Tiana used on him, and it's a mildly addictive drug. He's having a hard time of it."
"How long before he's coherent?"
"A few days, maybe. I think you made an impression on her, Theo."
Wing rolled his eyes the same time Theo narrowed his, fixing Collin with an unforgiving stare. "Really? What makes you think that?"
"She couldn't abide you before the two of you took off on your little solo venture, but she was quite concerned when you took so long following her out of Tiana's keep. Even more so when you decided to sleep the day away. She thought you might have taken some hurt."
"I did." Theo muttered. "A blistering hangover."
"And how did you manage that, when you were supposed to be fleeing the witch's keep?"
Theo smiled at him tightly and declined to answer. He drifted away from them, towards the meat, and an observant woman, the same one who had given him the ale that morning sliced him a generous platter of venison. It was barely cook enough to be considered rare and it's juices ran red, but it was wonderful fare. He carried the plate to the side of a nearby hut and sat down with his back to the wall to feast. After a while, Wing retreated from the dancing and sat down next to him.
"We've six men back in Vahnatu." his first mate said solemnly. "Boys really. Adella's the only one among them that's seen enough past trouble to keep them out of it there. I hate to think what She'll do the Luck, helpless as she is."
Theo didn't want to think about that. Had been avoiding thinking on it since he'd woke. Wing had taken every able bodied man save Adella with him in search of his captain. The only one's left were the green boys, none older than fifteen and none up to the type of trouble Tiana might bring down on crew of Theo's left in Vahnatu. He had not been at fault, not really, for what she had done to his ship, but if harm came to those boys and the one old seaman left to watch over them, that would be entirely on Theo's shoulders.
Spirits, what a situation. What a miserable, hopeless predicament he'd gotten them all into. "I swear, Wing, I'd take being stuck with a dozen shipments of rotten produce to never have seen her face. How could I have let this happen?"
"It's not your fault, Theo. You made a sound decision taking her onboard. What captain wouldn't have, with what she offered?"
"I broke the cardinal rule. I slept with her and that's what started it. You told me, Collin told me - - spirits, even 'Della told me - - I could see it in the eyes of the crew and I didn't heed the warnings. Look where it got us. Damnit, Wing, I want my ship whole and my crew safe!"
He felt sick. He felt the dread coiling in his gut and it had nothing to do with the dregs of hangover still lingering in his head. He did not want the absolution Wing was trying to offer, that would be too easy. The only way to vindicate himself would be to see his men safe. He owed them that.
"I'll go back to Vahnatu in a day or two and see what's happening." Wing said quietly.
Theo's head snapped up, appalled at the knowledge that his friend would so willingly take responsibility that should have been his. "If anyone goes back, I will."
Wing just shook his head, unruffled and radiating reason. "You can't do that, Theo. You're the captain of the ship that sank in her berth right in the middle of port, everybody knows your face. No one forgets you, Theo. Me they don't much recall. I'll go back to the port, see how the Luck fares and gather our men, if I can."
"Damnit. I feel like a fool."
Wing didn't say anything, which was a bad sign when Theo was in the midst of depreciating his value. The big man merely sat there, a sad smile on his face, and Theo figured that this time the evidence was so overwhelming that even his best friend could not come up with arguments against it.
Dharva did not much like the looks the pirates gave her, or the critical, somewhat resentful appraisal the pirate's women showered upon here whenever she was forced in their company. She avoided mingling with them, staying mostly to the hut where master Pyphin tossed and sweated off the drug Tiana had laced his blood with. When she could stand the cloying smell of sickness and the warmth of the small fire pit no longer, she would take up the bow she had found and retreat to the forest. Collin warned her not to go far, and to keep an wary eye out for both strangers and members of the pirate village, advising her to trust neither while she was alone. He would have gone with her, or sent one of the Luck crewmen, but she preferred the solitude to practice her control of the spirits. Sailors were such a panicky lot when it came to the arcane.
She didn't begrudge them that. She could not find it in her to resent them anything, after the sacrifice they had made for her and her ailing master. They had been stranded before this, but now it was likely that the witch that had sank their ship might destroy it entirely in vengeance. They had men in Vahnatu, boys really, that might come to harm. None of them voiced this fear outright, but she could see it in their eyes, and hear it in the things they didn't quite say. Were afraid to say. She was not naive enough to think they'd done it all for her, not Wing and the rest of the crew, they'd come after their captain and just happened to save her and Pyphin in the process. What motivated Theo she had no notion, but she was grateful nonetheless. She would have expressed that to him in particular if he hadn't fallen into such a black mood. Theo was unapproachable and foul of disposition even to his friends, so Dharva stayed away.
She thanked Collin, who was with her a great deal, looking after Pyphin, and Wing, who didn't speak much, but showed great understanding in his pale blue eyes. She did what she could to repay them by bringing in game that the pirates were too inept or too lazy to take. She figured the meat alone ought to pay for their keep in this tiny settlement. Spirits knew the bug infested hovels were no great strain on the pirate's generosity.
On the evening of the second night, while she sat with her back to Pyphin's pallet, practicing lighting and extinguishing the fire in the pit, the old man woke up and spoke to her in lucid tones.
"Dharva? What is this place?" His voice was weak, trembling with strain, but it was familiar, unlike the drifting babble she had heard from him days past. She released the spirits and spun around, on her knees at the head of the cot, staring eagerly down into the lined face of her master.
"We're in Danar, Master Pyphin. In a little cove just beyond Vahnatu port."
He blinked at her, obviously nonplused at this news. He was not a man for useless questions, and for some time he lay there, eyes almost glassy as he tried to recall the circumstances of his odd situation.
"A woman came to my house." he finally said. "A practitioner of Kerisai, if I'm any judge."
Dharva nodded eagerly.
"She wanted to know all manner of things regarding the Second Stone. She had a great interest in finding it." He paused, drifting off so long she thought he might be asleep, then he nodded and added with a spark of irritation. "Of course I would have nothing to do with associating a sorceress of the Kerisai with the rune holding that demon captive - - not after the Third Stone was shattered."
It was Dharva's turn to stare, perplexed. "I don't understand, Master. Shattered?"
"When the earth moved. Didn't you feel it?"
She shook her head and he lifted a hand, waving it weakly as if it were of no consequence.
"The earth moved, weeks ago - - or was it more? - - I seem to have lost my grip on time. The whole of the earth ripped asunder far north of Kava and the Third Stone was broken. Every sorcerer worth his title must have felt it."
She sat back on her heels, remembering that she had felt something of the sort, while she searched for inner peace before her sacrifice. Anson had remarked about it as well.
"But, why - -?" She started to ask, confused, but Pyphin was snoring gently and for the first time in two days his skin was free of sweat and his sleep seemed deep and restful.
For a while, she remained at his bedside, watchful and anxious over what he had said. Finally she went out in search of Collin, figuring that next to her master, he knew more of the lore surrounding the Three Stones than anyone else. When she did find him, he did little to reassure her, frowning and looking ominous when she related what Pyphin had said. He went back with her to check on the old man's state and declared him well on the way to recovery and suggested they wait until he woke to speculate further on Tiana's foreboding cabal.
Worried as much by Collin's refusal to discuss the subject as by Pyphin's words, she got little sleep. He was still resting when day light managed to break through the forest canopy, so she went outside to get some of the weak tea the pirate women brewed outside. There was venison from the night before still warming over the fire, as well as hard, several day old bread. It was a tolerable breakfast. She gulped it down, scalding her tongue on the hot tea, preparing to take a full mug back to the hut in case Pyphin awoke soon.
"Is he awake?" Theo came up to her, with Collin and Wing in his wake. She swallowed tea and the last of the meat, staring at their faces feeling almost guilty and not knowing why.
"Collin said he was lucid last night." The captain continued briskly. "I for one am ready to find out what this whole thing is about."
"He's very weak." she said, not certain she wished Theo, in this mood to interrogate her master.
"He'll be okay." Collin assured her. "We just need to talk." He nodded at her warmly, trying to encourage her, but dread still gripped her heart. It was not Theo and his morose mood, or even the fragile state of her teacher, it was more the sure knowledge that things would be said that she would rather not hear. It was a unpalatable dilemma, the need to know certain things and the desperate desire to avoid the responsibility of the information.
"All right." she relented grudgingly. "But I won't have him pushed."
However the first thing she heard upon entering the dim little hut, was an ill-tempered complaint.
"Dharva, this bed is crawling with bugs. What vermin infested place have you brought me to?"
He sat on the side of the pallet, knobby knees poking out from the edge of his shirt. His thin hair stuck out at odd angles and his eyes were cantankerous. He did not seem quite so weak this morning, in fact he rather seemed to be spoiling for a fight.
"I brought you tea." She offered the mug. When he took it there was still a tremor in his hands. He frowned at that as much as she did.
"What was I given?" Carefully he took the mug in both hands and took a experimental sip. He made a face at the weak flavor.
"Veperin." Collin supplied the answer and Pyphin's eyes flickered to where he and his companions stood in the doorway. "For quite a long time."
"And how would you know that?"
Collin shrugged. "I was on the ship that brought you here. It was a good month's voyage and the lady had you drugged the entire time."
The old man's eyes glittered. "It's a fine herb for hindering magic. The spirits have a distaste for a mind clouded by it. Tell me about this lady."
"We were hoping, you could tell us about her." Theo said.
"And who are you?"
"This is Theo, master." Dharva broke in before Theo could say anything imprudent. "It was his ship that brought you over. And that's Wing and this is Collin. His grandfather is a friend of yours from Astaza."
"Terifen." Collin added. "He's spoken highly of you many times."
"Terifen. The old goat, he ought to, as many times as I saved his hide. You're a grandson of Terifen, I can see that by looking at you. What are you doing here, then?"
"A parting of family tradition." Collin admitted ruefully. "Sir, about what you said of the Third Rune being broken?"
The old man sighed, looked about for a place to sit his mug and settled for handing it back to Dharva. The testy look was gone from his eyes, replaced by one of grave weariness.
"This hovel is stifling. Help me outside where I can breath."
Collin moved forward, giving Pyphin a hand up, letting the old man lean shakily on his strength. "Not for too long. You've not recovered fully, yet." Collin advised as they left the confines of the hut for the crisp morning air.
"How would you know, you're just a cook." Pyphin shot back.
Collin lifted a brow curiously. "And how would you know that, master Pyphin?"
"I remember you from the ship. Your cooking was unpalatable."
There was a low rumble of laughter from Wing, at which Collin glared. "I didn't much care for your traveling companions. I'm a surgeon as well."
"One hopes you're better at that. I remember him, too." The old man cast a look aslant to Theo.
Theo declined to comment, walking silently at the outside of their group as they approached the crude plank table and benches that sat near the central fire pit. The pirates, overall were late sleepers and only a few of the women and children were up and about so early in the morning. They shied away from the strangers in their midst though, leaving them privacy to talk freely.
Dharva cut a few of the tenderest pieces of venison for Pyphin and he picked unenthusiastically at the meat as he spoke.
"The guardian stone is broken. I felt it, this woman, Tiana most likely felt it. Every magic user sensitive to the spirits must have felt it happen."
"But, how?" Collin asked. "The runes are magically protected. They can't be broken."
"There are no absolutes in this world." Pyphin said sagely, then rolled his eyes at his own scholarly tone and added. "Man built it. Nature broke it. When the earth shifts, mountains move, much less one rock no taller than a child. Who would have thought, when it was put there that the very ground it sat upon would break apart? If I were one of those ancient sorcerers, believe me that wouldn't have been my first concern."
"Wait a minute." Theo put his hands on the table, giving Pyphin an impatient stare. "What exactly are we talking about here, and what does it have to do with Tiana?"
"Don't you know anything about history?" Dharva snapped.
"I know what I need to know."
"Which is nothing."
"Children." Pyphin slapped his palm on the tabletop. "Dharva, you've usually better manners. Be good. Young man what we are talking about has everything to do with this sorceress' interest in me and my studies. Do you know the origins of magic? No. Then listen and I'll tell you.
"Thirty generations ago two powerful demons were summoned. rather by accident I'd imagine, in a cavern in the drylands of Perth. Ishvan is what we call that series of caves now. The men who summoned them were ecstatic at the wealth of power these beings offered and discovered that with the proper sacrifices these spirits were willing to grant favors. "Now, along with these two greater spirits hordes of smaller beings also crossed the boarder between this realm and their own. These smaller spirits were more easily swayed and seemed to form more lasting bonds with the men and women who sacrificed to gain their good will, where the greater demons held no allegiance. Over time two sects formed, each following one of the greater spirits, each developing the traits and mannerisms of those spirits. Kerisai and Kurisar were the names the demons were called by men and eventually as the practices of these sects diverged there developed conflicts between them.
"The sect of Kerisai became secretive, holding it's rituals in the dark of night, practicing magics that were tainted by pain and death. Those that practiced Kurisar sought a more pure form of magic that dealt more with serenity of spirit than the destruction of soul. Understandably the two sects clashed and that conflict began to spread to the entities themselves. They began to war and their strife threatened to tear the world asunder. You can not imagine the damage they caused. The world was a different place back then. The spirits we control these days are infants compared to Kerisai and Kurisar.
"Along with the world however, they damaged themselves, permanently dissolving their corporeal forms."
"They have solid forms?" Theo interrupted.
"When they choose, how else could they perform the physical tasks we set them to? Do you want to hear this?"
The old man cocked a gray brow at him and Theo grudgingly nodded.
"Then don't interrupt. I hate to be interrupted. Where was I? Oh, yes. Once the spirits had damaged themselves through their own fighting, the mortal sorcerers of both sects, who had found unity in the demolishment of their lands, found an opening to entrap the demons. They performed the ultimate sacrifice of willingly giving up their own lives. It was so great a sacrifice that the demons themselves were swayed against their will and each spellbound into a rune empowered stone. The First Stone held the spirit of Kurisar, and that was taken to the cold northern lands of Khell to be watched over by Collin here's ancestors. The Second, the one holding Kerisai was taken to Danar, which explains why the Kerisai sect has always been so prevalent here. Now the Third Stone was created as a guardian to the other two. Neither sect trusted the other to forever maintain the runes which held their patron spirits, so a third stone was made to preserve the integrity of the others."
"And the sentinel stone is broken." Wing said somberly when the old man paused to wet his throat with a sip of cold tea.
"It is broken."
"Which means that the other two are vulnerable to outside forces." Collin surmised. "Wouldn't a Kerisai sorceress love to get her hands on the Second Stone?"
"She'd be a fool to release that power." Dharva said reasonably. "Doesn't she know her history?"
"It might be different this time." Pyphin said slowly, thoughtfully. "The spirit's have no corporeal form, their power is diminished. It would need a host form." He took another sip of tea.
"Where is the Second Rune?" Collin asked. "Who watches after it?"
"I'm not exactly certain of that. A fair number of guesses come to mind. It was never held in as much reverence as the Kurisar stone, the Kerisai not having the nurturing nature of our own folk. I've done some research. . ."
"Did you tell Her ?" That from Theo.
The old man thought a moment, then shook his head. "Not exactly, though I might have given her clues, if she had the sense to take my notes on the subject she might eventually be able to narrow it down."
"If she finds it," Collin asked. "What are the chances of her breaking it?"
"I'll have to think on that. It's not an option any of us ever considered before. I'm tired now. Find me a bed not crawling with insects, will you girl?"
Shaken, Dharva rose quickly, a bug free bed the least of the worries crowding her mind. Theo started to put a hand out to stop Pyphin's departure, more questions to ask. Collin whispered something that made him back down, but she felt his eyes on her retreating back the entire walk across the yard.
"Should I be scared?" she asked in a tiny voice, after she'd found relatively clean bedding and settled her master upon it.
He sighed, eyes flickering closed. "Very likely, girl." After a moment he added. "You've cut your hair." As if he'd noticed it for the first time. She laughed, that loss so far behind her now that it hardly made any impact at all.
"Be a good girl and leave me be." he asked, and she nodded, figuring that he more likely to brood over the present problem, than to sleep. She left him, forcing the faith that her teacher, her wonderfully brilliant teacher, could come up with a solution.
* * * * *
Wing left to make the trek up the coast to Vahnatu the next morning, taking two Luck seamen with him. Garney drew them a map of the various trade routes running through the forests that would lead them most directly to the port city. He also divulged the names and locations of several folk who might put up those on the black lists of the powers that be. Armed with that information Wing marched into the wood.
Overall, Theo was in a miserable mood. He was no fit company for anyone save the old pirate, Garney who, of a foul disposition himself, hardly noticed Theo's short temper. Garney's birthplace was Parmale on the south western coast of Khell and it had been some forty years since he'd set foot in his homeland. It had been almost three decades since he'd sailed the waters of Khell and he was full of questions about the state of Parmalian affairs, and the ripeness of Khell waters in so far as opportunity for a buccaneer.
"Very poor. The waters are clogged with Perthian Navy ships." Which was a fair bit of exaggeration, but one hardly wanted to encourage Danarian pirates to roam from their territorial waters.
"So why," he asked, after Garney had exhausted his knowledge of the state of Parmalian society. "Do you hold such a grudge against Tiana?"
Garney, who was whittling the head of a new cane, paused, knife biting under a curl of wood. "I worked for her."
"Before you turned to pirating?"
Garney's lips turned up in a sly grin. "Oh no, lad, it was pirates that she was looking to employ. See, the lady's got legitimate business and then she's got shady dealings. There's a few of us that she uses for those. Like for instance if one of her legitimate importers is bringing in something she'd rather not share, or pay for, she just has the ship hi-jacked."
"So she's double dealing her own people. No wonder she's so popular in port."
"She's more than popular, but she's got the forces to back her up. Seen any war ships in Vahnatu harbor? They belong to her. She's got maybe half a dozen of them cruising the waters around Danar. Not to mention her otherworldly talents."
"What did you do to get on her bad side?"
"Got greedy. Tried to hold back a little of one of the shipments we took. Didn't figure she'd notice. She had her goons work me over bad. Broke my leg in so many places it never did heal right." He shivered at the memory, then laughed self-consciously. "All that for a case of whisky. It wasn't that good a brew at that. Haven't had my sealegs since. Took my equilibrium clean away. She should have killed me outright."
"I'm sorry." And Theo was, shuddering over the thought of having the ability to sail the sea wrenched away from him.
The old pirate wasn't much inclined to chatter after that and Theo was perfectly content with silence. Collin hurried past, carrying an armful of fist sized rocks and disappeared into Mater Pyphin's hut. After a while Dharva appeared out of the woods with a fair collection of roots and herbs. Over the next hour the two of them left and returned with various odds and ends. Eventually Collin exited, stretching and went to the hut he shared with several of his fellow crewmen and after a bit Dharva wondered out, faraway look in her eyes and meandered down the trail towards the cove.
Curious to know exactly what they'd been up to with the old man, Theo followed her, catching up with her just as she was settling on the sun warmed sand of the shore. She watched his approach warily, pale brows drawn. He held up his hands in a gesture of peace and sat down on a rock a few paces behind her. The water of the cove was crystalline blue, so clear the reefs could be seen fifty feet out.
"How is he doing today?"
"Much better." There was a vague note of suspicion in her voice.
"What have you three been doing all morning?"
"Helping Master Pyphin."
He stared at her, waiting for some further explanation. She stared out at the cove, obviously not compelled to give any on her own.
She shifted her gaze somewhat demurely back to him. With a little sigh, she wrapped her arms about her knees and admitted. "He's making a seal. Collin and I have been helping as best we can."
"A seal for what?"
"For the Second Rune. But he's not being particularly talkative about the details, he gets like that when he's creating, so don't bite my head off if I don't know everything."
"What makes you think I'd do that?"
"Because you've been stalking around barking at everybody . I know you're upset about not being able to go back to Vahnatu instead of Wing and about your ship and all, and I know you're mad at me for getting you in trouble with Tiana again, I'm really sorry, but this is important."
When she paused to draw breath he held up a hand in bemusement. "Dharva, wait a second. I'm not mad at you."
"You're not? You seemed mad."
"Yeah, well, I might have been at the time, but I'm not now. You impressed me, if you want the truth. You did a good job getting the old man out."
Her jaw worked spasmodically, her eyes were wide platters of blue. She was appealing, sitting there, with such hopeful incredulity on her face. Spirits, had he been that awful to her that she was overwhelmed at a show of good humor?
"I'm frightened." she admitted. "I'm really frightened by what might happen if that woman can find the stone and release the demon. The world might not be the same after that, you know?"
"My world is that ship in Vahnatu harbor and the crew who works her. She's pretty much destroyed that, so it's not hard to conceive of her wrecking everything else." He said it with grim humor, but realized as the words left his mouth how genuine a statement it was. Dharva's face was deadly serious, her tone devoid of any attempt to make less of the situation than there was. "We have to stop this, before it goes too far."
He nodded agreement at that, absently wondering when he had come to consider himself among the we Dharva spoke of.
"What happened at her keep that delayed you so long?" She tilted her head in earnest curiosity.
He frowned over an answer, the wheedling flirtation with Tiana not exactly a shining point in his career. "I ran into the lady."
"And she recognized you?"
"What did you do?"
"I convinced her I was there legitimately."
"Wearing the stolen armor of one of her guards? And she bought it?"
"I can be very convincing. Listen, Dharva, about this seal thing your master is making - ?"
She waved a hand in dismissal. "He'll explain in good time to all of us. I want to hear how you tricked Tiana."
"I don't feel like talking about it." he said crossly.
"Oh, really? How did you manage to get so sloshed convincing her how harmless you were?"
"Who says I was?" her tone was beginning to make him feel defensive.
"Collin says you slept with her on your ship. Is that how you convinced her?"
"Oh, did he?" He was going to wring Collin's neck. "And no I didn't and if there's some reason it should concern you that I don't know about, feel free to enlighten me."
Her aggressive look turned a little dismayed at that and she backed off, turning her attention abruptly back to the water. He got up, stalking away from what had started out a pleasant enough conversation.
It didn't matter what he did, he was not going to be happy until he and his were safely back at sea on board his own ship. Too make it worse a little, scornful voice in the back of his head taunted him that he could have solved this dilemma twice over by the simple act of murder. Could have sent Tiana overboard with her body guards in the middle of the sea when he'd had the chance, or done more than merely crack her head against the wall those few nights ago in her keep and Pyphin wouldn't have to be making runes. They might all have been free to return to Vahnatu without fear of her vengeance. Only before that night, he'd only hit a woman once before, much less killed one and something in him just rebelled at the notion.
Determined to stop thinking about what he could have done differently and start figuring what to do about the problems that faced him now, he went in search of Collin, hoping he could be more helpful in discerning Pyphin's plans than Dharva.
"I didn't exactly tell her that. She sort of picked it up on her own. She's not a stupid girl, you know." Collin said later in his own defense, as they sat on the ground at the edge of town helping several of the pirate children mend fishing nets that had seen far better days. The pirates were far better at stealing their food stuffs than catching it, and even with Dharva's contribution of red meat, the addition of twelve extra mouths to feed was stretching the limits of Garney's hospitality. Collin suggested they make use of the lagoon's aquatic residents and expand the village menu.
"What possible reason would you have for bringing it up?"
"Theo, she needed to know what we did of the lady. Your dalliance was a pretty big part of what set her off against us in the first place."
"Oh no it wasn't. You poking about the old man was what got it started."
"Well I was right, wasn't I?"
"Does it ever occur to you not to gossip like a fishwife?"
"Never crosses my mind." Collin pulled a knot tight and grinned.
Theo scowled back. "So spread some of it my way. What's this rune the old man is working on?"
"Something to strengthen the seal of the stone. Temporarily, at least, until the guardian stone can be repaired."
"The one in Ishvan? It can be fixed?"
"He thinks so. With enough help. He wants to get back to Knell as soon as possible and gather together enough Kurisar sorcerers to fix the damage."
"That gives me hope that this thing isn't a waste of time."
"Yeah. It's just a matter of finding the Second Stone before Tiana does."
"And the chances of that?"
"Better for us than for her, I think. Pyphin's been studying the stones for the last century almost, he's got a great deal of information stored up in that head of his. He keeps pulling up more and more details as he thinks about it. We might already have a fairly good location."
Theo distractedly worked a new piece of twine into the mesh. "If he's so eager to get back to Khell, then how's he going to find this stone and do whatever to it?"
"Ah, that's the trick, isn't it?" Collin was staring at him, hands gone still.
Theo met the look, frowning. "You volunteered us, didn't you?"
He should have been angry, or at least indignant at the presumptuousness, but all he could summon up was concern over what would become of his poor ship while he was distracted with things momentous arcane happenings. If only they could get her seaworthy before Tiana decided to take action, then he could limp her to a safer port. Garney would know of one. The pirates had to maintain their vessels somewhere.
The next morning they tried the nets in the lagoon. Theo and several of his restless crew waded out into the shallows while the village children stood on shore, eager spectators. The waters here were colder than those of southern Khell, so they were quick about their work. With a bushel of fish to show for their efforts, they walked the path back to the settlement when one of the women met them on the way. She reprimanded the children for escaping their normal chores then turned an inviting leer on the men.
"The old wizard is wanting you, captain."
It was about time. With a quick nod of thanks he sprinted down the wooded path. When he burst through the door of Pyphin's hut, the old man, Dharva and Collin were all sitting around a cleared space on the floor. There was between them, a stone the size of a man's splayed hand, which had been etched with some sort of design and scattered with the ash of burned herbs from the smell of it.
"Come on. Come on." the old man urged, grown impatient and imperious with his improved health. "Been pestering these two for answers and not around when I'm ready to give them."
Theo lifted a brow at the complaint before dropping to his knees between Collin and Dharva. The old man looked across at him as if he expected a rebuttal and nodded to himself when Theo declined to give one. He brought out a scrape of canvas with a simple symbol drawn on with charcoal. Tossing it on the earth, he said.
"This is the emblem you will find on the Second Stone. It is the mark of Kerisai. It is in all ways antipodal to Kurisar."
Theo picked it up, marking the angular symbol, then discarded it behind him and gestured at the flat circle of stone. "And what's that?"
"That is the seal that will insure the integrity of the Second Stone until I can precipitate the restoration of the Third one."
"I take it this seal doesn't need to be placed by your hand?"
Pyphin's thin lips pulled back in a grin. "Smart boy. You catch on quick."
"Oh, I guess things don't always even out in the end." Theo matched the grin with a dry one of his own. Dharva blushed and focused her attention on the seal. Pyphin slanted Theo a curious look before going on.
"The girl here thinks we can get passage on a ship back to Khell in a few days time."
"The Furazol ." Dharva explained. "Captain Skawag said he'd be back in Vahnatu Port after he sailed down the coast and offered me a trip back if I wished."
Theo did some mental calculations, figuring how long it might take a ship to complete a coastal run and return to Vahnatu. If the Furazol were fast, and from the brief look he'd gotten of her in port, he thought she might be able to maintain a fair speed, then she could very well make it back to Vahnatu with in a weeks time. The only problem was being there when she docked. The captain wouldn't wait for Dharva long, not in Vahnatu with the troubles they'd started, festering in town. Any sane skipper would set sail as soon as his hold was full and head for the more peaceful waters of Khell.
Of course the old man would be as much, if not more of a target than Theo was. It would take some doing to accomplish this feat. "Okay, say we get you to port in time to hitch a ride with this ship, where does that leave us as far as finding this Stone? Can you give us an exact location? None of us are familiar with this land?"
"I can give you a good idea."
"Blessed Spirits, old man, a 'good idea', is not good enough. I don't need to be stumbling around Danar with Tiana on my heels with only a good idea of where I'm going."
Pyphin sniffed, piqued and suggested. "My advise would be to avoid her."
"Oh." Theo smacked himself in the side of the temple as if suddenly enlightened. "I never thought of that. Silly me."
"Perhaps if you hadn't felt the need to fornicate with her, she would not be so eager to hunt you down."
Theo swung around to stab Collin with a glare of pure malice.
"I thought the same thing." Dharva said airily as she reached behind Theo and picked up the canvas he'd discarded. Flipping it over she revealed a well-drawn map of the Darklands. "But it's really neither here nor there, is it? This is a map and a list of things to look for to guide the way."
He snatched it from her hands and studied the map and the scrawled list of clues at the bottom. The sea will surround it on all sides but one, but no ship can reach it. Respected age guards the Fist Stone, while youthful irrelevance watches the Second. The way will be littered with stone trees.
There was more and all of it about as useful as the first few lines. He looked at the old man for a moment, then cast a disgusted look at Collin. "Have you read this garbage?"
Collin shrugged. "It's the best we could come up with. It is to the far south though, we do know that. The First Stone is at the northern tip of the world and the Second at the southern."
"Well that narrows it down."
"Is he always this pessimistic?" Pyphin asked of Collin.
"No, he generally tends to leap into things without forethought at all. It's nice to see a little precaution for a change." he smiled at Theo, who just couldn't find humor in the answer.
He was going to find the stone, he had no doubts about that, it was just a matter of finding a bit of local help to do it, since Pyphin was so exact in his estimation of its location. There was bound to be someone of Garney's acquaintance with a good grasp of the territories that they might trust to give them a guiding hand. Thar was a problem he'd tackle after figuring out how to get the old man unobtrusively back to Vahnatu port.
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