Chapter four


A thin cresent moon rising in the east dimly illuminated them as they rode out of the trees. The black outlines of buildings created dark pits in the night in front of them. They could see no lights on the street beyond the buildings, only the faint illumination that seeped out from behind the shuttered windows of a few of the homes. Porgia was not like Keesa, it was a farming community, not a trading town. Whereas in Keesa the streets were well lit and bustling with traffic late into the night, especially near the docks, here all was quiet. For the most part, the people here woke at the first light of dawn and were safely ensconced in their homes by nightfall.

Jenya led them behind the homes, staying off the street. Even in this quiet town, there could be prying eyes. Porgia was the closest town to the east of Keesa. If the Imperial Knights were looking for them, this would be a logical place to look, even if the highwaymen they had met had said nothing of the encounter.

Willbrand stared into the darkness around them, looking for any sign that they were being watched. His vision had always been keen, as evidenced by his ability to be the first one to spot game on the many hunting trips he had participated in. He had even been praised about it by Garrik. But even so, the low hanging moon produced long shadows around the buildings that even his vision could not penetrate.

Eventually Jenya led them up behind one large building. There she dismounted and walked over to the door at the back of the structure, knocking quickly. In the darkness around them, the knock seemed particularly loud.

A moment later light spilled out on them as the door opened. A tall lanky man wearing a brown shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a soiled green apron stood in front of them. A bushy mustache almost completely hid his mouth. He did not look in the least bit surprised.

"Vanim," he said, looking back inside, obviously trying not to shout, yet wanting to be heard. "We have guests."

They all dismounted. A moment later a young lad appeared beside the man.

"Hurry," the man said, motioning for them to enter. "Vanim will take your horses over to the stable."

The boy slipped out the door as the others entered. Willbrand looked around to see they stood in a large kitchen of what he assumed must be an Inn. An older woman stood in front of a large cooking pot, stirring the contents slowly. She looked at them without much curiosity.

"Good to see you, Zephis," Ktan said after the door had been closed behind him. "You don't see very surprised to see us."

"There've been Imperial Knights scurrying all over the place the last two days. Questioning everyone. Searching everywhere." Zephis replied. "Only you and your friends could stir up that much trouble. I figured you'd be in here sooner or later."

The man's eyes fell on Merigan and his face immediately brightened.

"Merigan, how are ya lass?" he said. "What has it been, over two years now? You get more beautiful every time I see you."

Merigan just smiled, looking slightly embarrassed.

Zephis' glance strayed to Willbrand.

"Here's a face I haven't seen before," he exclaimed. "Who might you be?"

"That's none other than Lord Willbrand Strumond," Saramis said before Willbrand could reply. "Heir of Baron Strumond. Gentleman par excellence and the flower of Crotasia knighthood. At least, until a few days ago."

Willbrand just glared at Saramis.

Zephis was obviously used to Saramis' exaggerations.

"I see," he said. "Well, Willbrand. I don't know how you ended up with these people, but I suggest you spend as little time with them as possible. They're nothing but trouble."

"So I've noticed," Willbrand muttered.

A pained expression crossed Saramis' face, but before he could speak Ktan interrupted.

"We're looking for a man named Hansen Barrik."

Zephis looked at Ktan sourly.

"Same old Ktan," he said. "Right down to business, without even a 'hello' for an old friend. We can talk anytime. Right now I can see you're weary from your trip." His eyes roamed over the others. "Or at least some of you are. And hungry as well, I'd wager. Darsa already has a stew going, more than enough for all seeing as how business has been so poor, and was about to but some bread in the oven. And you don't want to miss out on her fresh baked bread. People come from miles around for just a taste of it. Come, sit down."

"Vanim! Where did that dratted boy go?" he continued, apparently forgetting that he had sent the boy off to tend their horses. "I'll have him take your gear up to your rooms."

"Very kind of you," Jenya said. "But what about the Imperial Knights? You said they were searching the town. Any chance we'll be interrupted?"

"That's always a possibility," Zephis replied. "But there's none around right now. I think most of them have gone off to the south, and don't worry, we'll get plenty of warning should they return. You're safe here."

"Dinner sounds like a mighty good idea to me," Saramis commented.

Ktan managed to look only slightly annoyed.

"Very well," he stated. "It has been an eventful trip."

"Good," Zephis said. He pointed to the large kitchen table. "Have a seat. There's more room out in the dining hall, but there's more privacy in here."

Ktan nodded and they all walked over to the table and sat down. Darsa placed bowls in front of them and filled them with stew, while Zephis poured them all wine. Saramis dug in immediately, the others showing a bit more restraint. Willbrand tasted the stew cautiously, but as soon as he took a taste he brightened.

"This is excellent," he commented.

Darsa, who had gone over to the oven, nodded but did not speak.

"So what about this Barrik fellow?" Ktan questioned. "Do you know him?"

Zephis made a face.

"Can't even wait til you've had a bite to eat, can ye?" he questioned. "I never met a man who was more impatient. But I suppose there's no putting you off. You're going to keep annoying me and interrupting things until I tell ya, so I might as well get it over with."

He shook his had slowly, his shaggy hair dancing in the light from the fire behind him.

"I'm not familiar with the name," he said. "But we don't get many strangers here that I don't know about. Cept for all the kings men that have been running around lately, but I assume he's not one of them, eh? Most of the travelers who come through stay here at the Inn, and I can tell you now we don't have any Hansen Barrik here. But a stranger has been seen out at the old Daniff place. Least, that's the talk around town. It's an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Some kids mentioned him first, but the Miller, Bane Danner, has also seen him. No one knows what he's doing out there or how long he's been there. People keep pretty much to themselves around here. If some traveler wants to come through and spend the night at some abandoned house, we don't give it no nevermind, long as he doesn't disturb anyone."

"Where on the outskirts of town?" Ktan asked.

Zephis gave him a look, obviously unhappy at Ktan's attempts to get right to the point.

"South of here," the innkeeper replied. "If you go down Parons's trail, it's just past the creek, on the right hand side."

Ktan nodded, then looked down and concentrated on his food.

"I think I know where that is," Jenya remarked.

Just then the door was thrust open, making all their heads turn and more than one hand reach for a sword, but it was only Vanim.

"More soldiers in town," he announced.

Immediately even Zephis' face turned serious.

"Where are they lad?" he questioned.

"Down by the blacksmith," the boy replied. "Three knights, but not Imperials. They wore the colors of Duke Galton."

"Not much difference," Saramis stated wryly. "I'm sure the Imperial knights aren't far away, and will come running at the first squeal from Galton's men."

"Unless the noble Duke has decided to try to capture us on his own," Jenya remarked. "That would be quite a feather in his cap."

"If they're working at odds with one another, then so much the better for us," Ktan said. "But we can't count on that. I think it might be wise to get out to this farmhouse as quickly as possible, and with as little fuss."

"The bread's in the oven," Zephis remarked, and indeed they could all detect the odor of it baking. "They're already been here a dozen times. I doubt if they'll be back. If you're not going to stay the night, at least wait for the bread. You must be low on supplies. Even if you don't want to stay and eat it, you can take it with you. It's quite filling."

Ktan frowned, but before he could decline he noticed the faces of the others.

"Oh very well," he replied grudgingly. "I suppose we can wait a few minutes longer."

"Vanim, looks like our guests won't be staying after all," the innkeeper said. "So you just go back the way you came and fetch their horses again."

Vanim didn't seem at all disturbed by this sudden change of heart. Instead he slipped back out the door once more without a word.

Ktan has finished his stew. Now he sat back, his eyes wandering the room darkly. He was obviously on edge.

"You worry too much," Saramis said, noticing. "No one knows we're here, and we'll be gone within the hour. Doesn't seem likely they're going to show up at the doorstep in that time."

"We don't know who, if anyone might have seen us coming into town," Ktan replied. "We'd stayed alive this long because I worry."

Saramis shrugged and did not reply.

"So who's this Hansen Barrik anyway?" Willbrand decided to venture.

He saw Merigan glance at him sharply. Jenya and Saramis just turned away. Ktan did not look up at all.

"You'll find out soon enough," he replied.

Willbrand just stared at him for a moment. He was tired of them not trusting him. He was tired of being kept in the dark. He was tempted to pursue the matter further, but the look on Merigan's face made it obvious she didn't feel the same way. He decided to drop it, this time. But this wasn't going to last forever. He was going to confront Ktan on this eventually. He was either one of them, or he wasn't.

"So where are we headed after we meet this mysterious person?" he decided on instead. "Unless it all depends on what he tells us."

Ktan slowly looked up this time. His face was expressionless.

"It does," he replied.

Willbrand sat there for a moment in silence. The man was just a wealth of information.

When he started to speak again he was interrupted by Zephis.

"How's that bread coming?"

"It's ready now," Darsa replied. Indeed, she was already opening the oven and sliding it out. The smell of it assaulted them even more strongly, and just the odor alone made Willbrand salivate. If it was as good as the stew, they were going to have to drag him out of here.

Darsa placed the loaves on a table by the oven. Zephis quickly sliced them up into manageable portions, then divided them up between his guests. Saramis eagerly tore off a piece and stuffed it in his mouth. His eyes lit up and the ripped off another piece.

"This is truly heaven," he announced. "I bow to your skills ma'am. If you weren't married to Zephis, I would be tempted to steal you away."

And bow he did, deeply and sweeping his hat in front of the woman. She just smiled shyly.

"Here here, none o' that," Zephis cut in. "She's taken, and more than just for her bread, I might add. And you watch how you stuff that in your mouth. You've got a long trip ahead of you, and I've a feeling you'll be wanting it to last a bit. If you eat it all here, you'll have none for the road."

"But I'd die a happy man," Saramis stated.

"Let's get going," Ktan cut in.

"But Vanim isn't even back with the horses," Saramis protested.

"I'm sure he'll just be a minute," Ktan replied. "We can meet him outside."

Saramis shook his head.

"Why is it that whenever we find any comfort at all, you always want to leave as quickly as possible?" he chided. "One would think you had some kind of phobia against basic creature comforts. Is it some kind of knight thing?"

"It most certainly is not!" Jenya cut in. "I like creature comforts as much as the next person."

"It's not that," Merigan spoke up. "It's just Ktan being Ktan. He's just trying to look out for us."

"Some of us don't need looking after," Saramis spoke up. "We can take care of ourselves."

"You're including yourself in that group?" Jenya questioned. "Wasn't it just a couple of months ago we had to rescue you from that gypsy man who's wife..."

"No need to bring up that old story," Saramis cut her off. "That was an aberration."

"Oh was it?" Jenya shot back. "And what about..."

"Are we ready to go?" Ktan interrupted. "Or would you rather stand here all night discussing everyone's idiosyncrasies?"

With that he shouldered his pack, stepping over to the door and opening it up. Reluctantly Saramis and Jenya pulled on their packs as well. A few moments later they were outside the building. Even as Willbrand, the last one, stepped out the door, Vanim appeared leading their horses.

Ktan slipped on his immediately. Zephis stood in the doorway watching them.

"Good luck to ya," he said seriously. "Next time you come by, perhaps you could stay a bit longer."

Ktan just nodded, then turned and rode his horse into the night.

"I hope so," Jenya said hesitantly, before following Ktan into the dark.

Saramis mounted as well and trailed after the others. Willbrand noticed that there were still two horses left. Zephis noticed his look.

"The chestnut colt is mine," he said, looking directly at Willbrand. "You take it. You've got a long way to go, and riding doubled up would be a chore. We don't have time to buy you a horse, so this will have to do. It's a sturdy steed, though not trained for battle, so be careful with him. I can get another one."

Willbrand just looked at him.

"I can't pay you," he blurted out.

"No need for that," Zephis said, shaking his head. "Me and Ktan go back a long way. In spite of our banter, I know his hearts in the right place, and I'll do anything I can to help him. I know he'd do the same for me."

Willbrand stood there for a moment, overwhelmed by the man's generosity.

"Thank you very much," was all he could think of to say.

"You're welcome," the innkeeper replied. "Now get going or the others will leave you behind. Good luck to you all. And Merigan, you take care of Ktan for me, you hear?"

"Indeed I will," Merigan said as she mounted her own horse.

Willbrand climbed up on the colt and settled comfortably in the saddle. Merigan was already trotting away. He started after her, turning back to wave one last time at the innkeeper, before the man slipped back inside and closed the door behind him.

It took only a moment for Willbrand and Merigan to catch up with the others. They rode for some time. Willbrand kept his eyes open, but he saw no one but his companions. After a short time, the houses began to thin out, replaced by open farm land. The rich dark soil here was unusually fertile, making it ideal for farming, which was the main reason the town had grown here in the first place. Though it was dark the thin moon illuminated the landscape well enough for them to see quite a distance. Once they were out of the town proper, however, there was not much to see except open fields. The only thing that broke up the landscape was the occasional sprinkling of buildings that marked another farm. The entire area was much too open for Willbrand's liking. If they were caught out here, there was no place to hide.

Still, though Willbrand kept his eyes open, no one disturbed them as they rode their horses down the dirt trail through the fields.

They arrived at the lane that led to the farmhouse in question, just over the creek as Zephis had said. It looked no different from any others that Willbrand had seen along the way, except that instead of an occasional light shining in a window, it was totally dark. There were three buildings, the farmhouse itself, a barn, almost as large as the house, and a much smaller building, probably a workshop or shed, to the house's right. Nothing stirred as they road up the dirt path toward it. It looked completely deserted. If anyone was there, they gave no sign.

"Perhaps he's gone," Saramis commented.

The suggestion did not seem to make much impression on Ktan. He led them up to the front door and dismounted. Willbrand looked around. This close it was clear even in the dark that the place had been abandoned. The front door hung open in its hinges, the shutters covering most of the windows broken or missing altogether. Looking up Willbrand could see a gaping hole in the roof.

"This place smells of an ambush," Jenya said softly.

Willbrand didn't disagree. In fact, he had been thinking the same thing. He began to wonder just how well Ktan knew Zephis.

Ktan, however, seemed unperturbed by these thoughts. He walked cautiously but unhesitantly towards the door.

"Be careful," Jenya commented as she followed Ktan. Willbrand noticed that she had her sword drawn.

The young noble dismounted as well, as did the others.

"Methinks our quarry may already have flown the coop," Saramis persisted.

"We'll only find out by going inside," Ktan said practically.

Willbrand was right behind Ktan and Jenya as they entered the building. He had drawn his sword too, balancing it lightly in his hand. He hadn't had a chance to take part in the battle with the highwaymen. He hadn't a chance to show the others what he was capable of. And he was anxious to do so. If Ktan saw that he could handle himself in battle, perhaps the man would think of him in a better light.

The room was dim, but not completely dark. By now all their eyes were well adjusted to the night. There was some furniture in the room, a table, a few chairs. Built into the wall on the opposite side of the door was a fireplace, the opening within it a deeper darkness in the dark around them. The three of them spread out into the room, moving slowly. An open doorway led into another room on their right and another one beside the fireplace.

Willbrand walked toward the doorway by the fireplace, while Ktan took the other entranceway. Jenya drifted slowly after Ktan. Behind them the forms of Saramis and Merigan appeared in the entrance.

In spite of the light that filtered in, much of the room was shrouded in darkness. It wouldn't have been difficult for someone to conceal himself in a dark corner. They might walk right past.

"Saramis, would you be so kind as to provide us with some light?" Ktan asked.

Saramis grunted an acknowledgement. For a moment he fumbled with his satchel. Then a flare of white light came to hissing life in his hand. Willbrand had to shade his eyes for a moment until he adjusted, but he looked up immediately at the sound of Merigan's gasp.

For a moment he didn't know what caused it. She stood right next to Saramis, looking over toward the corner of the room. He turned that way and saw the dark outline of a man.

The sudden swing of swords to point in the man's direction and cry of surprise from Jenya as well proved that the others were as surprised as Merigan and Willbrand had been. For a second the young noble braced himself for attack, but an instant later he realized the man seemed to pose no threat. He was sitting in the corner, his knees drawn up, head erect with eyes closed. His was old, his skin dark as wrinkled parchement. His head was shaven, and he wore a simple brown frock. His arms lay limply by his sides. He didn't move at all, did not even seem to notice they were there. And now Willbrand wondered if they were looking at a dead body.

Again he was proven wrong, however, when the man's eyes blinked open.

The man said nothing, did not even seem to notice them, merely sat there staring straight ahead. Willbrand looked at him nervously. He still held his sword at the ready, but it seemed pointless, the man seemed to be in another world. Yet for some reason, instead of reassuring him, that made him more nervous.

Ktan stepped forward. Lowering his sword he stooped down right in front of the man, who still did not react.

"Hansen," Ktan said slowly.

For a moment the man didn't reply. Then, without moving at all, or shifting his eyes toward Ktan, he spoke.

"I remember you."

For a moment Ktan did not reply. Though the man was sitting there completely still, everything about him was somehow unnerving.

"It's been a long time," Ktan said slowly.

There was silence again. The man sat there, unmoving.

"I thought you were all dead," he said abruptly.

"Not quite," Ktan replied. "Some of us survived. I need your help."

Again the man took an annoying long time to reply.

"Help?" he said.

"Yes," Ktan replied. He turned to look at Merigan. "Come here girl."

Merigan stepped forward. When she reached Ktan he took her by the arm and looked at Hansen.

"Do you know who this is?" he questioned.

The man's eyes did not move. He continued to stare straight ahead. Again there was an oddly long silence, as if their words were carrying across a great gulf to reach the man.

"It's not possible," Hansen said. The man's voice was completely devoid of emotion. Yet somehow Willbrand sensed that he was surprised.

"Yes it is," Ktan said immediately. "She's one of them, but she's untrained. That's why I need your help. She can't stand against Irissa without training."

Irissa? Willbrand frowned. Were they talking about Queen Irissa? What did she have to do with this?

"You are a fool Ktan," the man said after a moment. "There are no more Maidens. There is no one to train her. Only Irissa could do that."

"There are no Maidens," Ktan agreed. "But you were there, Hansen You saw the rituals. You know what they did."

Willbrand took a slow step closer. The man was talking clearly but softly. He wanted to make sure he didn't miss anything. Now what were these Maidens he was referring to?

"I know nothing," Hansen replied.

"You do!" Ktan insisted. "You were the Maiden's servant. You were in charge of setting up the rituals. You were there when they took place."

"I was there but I could not see," Hansen replied. "There were words but I could not hear. I cannot help you."

"What the hell is he talking about?" Saramis questioned.

"The secrets are hidden," Hansen continued. "No man can unlock them. Might as well try to catch the wind. It will always slip from your grasp. Long I have tried, for years I have searched for the answers myself. I have seen the book of redemption. I have seen death!"

Ktan seemed to be hanging onto every word the man said, but if it meant anything to him Willbrand couldn't tell. It was all just babble to the young noble. He was quite certain now that the man in front of them had taken leave of his senses.

"Hansen, speak plainly," Ktan said. "Surely there is something you know, something you can tell us that would help."

"Help? There is no help. The Maidens are gone. They were the only one's who could help us. Mortal man is not strong enough. It will devour you. It will devour us all!"

Ktan shook his head, the first sign he gave of his mounting frustration.

"What will?" he questioned.

"The darkness!" Hansen replied. Though the spoke the words sharply his face was expressionless, his eyes still looking straight ahead. Not once did the man make eye contact with any of them. "The darkness is coming. The Maidens held it back, but they do so no longer. Now nothing can stop it. I have tried myself but it is hopeless. Without the book of redemption I can do nothing."

"The book of redemption," Ktan repeated. "What is this book of redemption?"

"The Kan Tournin , the book of redemption," the man said. "The holiest of holies. Source of all wisdom. Used in all the rituals. It is said if any eyes fall upon the pages of the book, unless they be those of the high priestess herself, that person will be instantly cast into the darkest pit of hell, never to return."

Willbrand looked at the man skeptically. He had no idea what Hansen was talking about, but the darkest pits of hell seemed to be a bit melodramatic to him. He couldn't help but notice, however, that the faces of all the others around him were dead serious.

"So Irissa has it?" Jenya spoke up slowly.

"No!" the man said, replying more quickly than he had at any time before. "The tome was taken from the fortress by Variman Vashay."

Variman Vashay? Willbrand lifted an eyebrow in surprise. Even in Crotasia the name of the leader of the Imperial Knights was well known.

"Who was in league with Irissa," Ktan stated. "He probably brought it to her straightaway."

"No," Hansen said again. "The book has not been returned to Irissa's hand. She has embraced the darkness. If the book were truly in her possession, it would already be too late. The darkness would be upon us. No, Variman did not hand it over to Irissa. As far as she knows it was destroyed in the fire. Perhaps he knew just what she would do with it, or perhaps he planned on using it as a bargaining tool one day. For whatever reason, he gave it to his trusted friend, Dason Wolcroft."

"Dason Wolcroft," Ktan repeated slowly. Willbrand had never heard the name before.

"Could this book help Merigan learn the ways of the Maidens?" Ktan went on.

"You fool!" Hansen blurted out, so suddenly that all but Ktan jerked back, startled. "The book is death. None may open it save the Maiden high priestess."

Ktan did not look impressed.

"But you said it was used in the rituals," he persisted. "It must contain some information on them."

It seemed that Hansen was finally losing some of his detachment. His words became suddenly more animated, and for the first time he turned and looked right at Ktan.

"You must not!" he said, his voice rising. "You will bring the darkness down upon us all. She will know. She will know if you try to use the book. If you so much as touch it, she will realize it wasn't destroyed, and she will lay the world bare to find it. And find it she will. And when she does, all will be lost!"

"I think you overestimate her abilities," Ktan said slowly and calmly. "No matter how powerful she is, she doesn't know everything. She's been looking for us for a long time, but she hasn't caught us yet."

Hansen shook his head vigorously back and forth, so hard it almost seemed to Willbrand he was having a seizure. Suddenly the man pulled himself to his feet, again startling them all, including Ktan this time, who stood up as well and took a half step back.

"You are a bug!" Hansen said, his voice suddenly rising almost to a scream. "Irissa doesn't care about you. You cannot hurt her. This young girl cannot hurt her. There is nothing you can do to her, and she knows it. Without the book, without training, this girl could never stand against her. She has nothing to fear from you, and you have nothing she wants, so she does not put much effort into trying to find you. But if you found the book, if this girl became a real threat, she would find you. You would die, and you would take us all with you!"

"Calm down man," Saramis stated.

"I should have never told you," Hansen continued, ignoring Saramis. "I know what you are going to do. I know you too well, Ktan Hammerlane. You're going to ignore my warning. You're going to find Lord Wolcroft. You're going to find the book. In your arrogance you think you are strong enough. You think you can use this girl to get what you want. But it will destroy you. It will bring ruin upon you, ruin upon the entire world. Though your own selfishness you will release the darkness upon us. It is coming. I can feel it even now!"

The others just stared at the man. His entire demeanor had changed dramatically. Where once his words had been calm and detached, now they were filled with hysterical emotion. Where he had been sitting almost inhumanly immobile, now his body shook, his hands flying seemingly at random in the air in front of him, his knees jerking as if he could barely keep them in place. Where he once sat staring straight ahead, now his eyes darted around them room, searching their faces, searching every corner of the room, filled with a paranoid fear.

"But I won't let it happen!" the man exclaimed. "I won't let you do it Ktan. I won't let you destroy us all. The book must remain hidden. I have tried too long to keep back the darkness. So long. I won't let you destroy everything I've fought for. I won't let you hand the book to Irissa!"

His eyes shot wildly around the room.

"The darkness is coming!" he shouted suddenly. "I can feel it. It is here! It is here for you all!"

He raised his arms, as if to ward off an invisible blow. There was a flash of light as Saramis' flame sparked suddenly brighter, and then the room was plunged into darkness.

Though the night was no darker than it had been when they entered the building, their eyes were now used to the light Saramis had been producing. With the sudden loss of it it became almost pitch dark. Willbrand could barely make out the faint shapes of the others around him.

The young noble tried to remain calm, but he had to admit the strange behavior of Hansen was getting to him. The man was obviously unbalanced, and there was no telling what he would do. The man had no weapon, and his slight build and age made it seem unlikely he would pose any serious physical threat, but Willbrand had already seen that Merigan had some kind of unexplainable power. And this man obviously had something to do with that. Did he have some kind of strange power too? Willbrand had no idea what kind of threat this man might actually pose. And what was this darkness he was ranting about? Was there some other threat here too? One they hadn't detected? He didn't understand what was going on, and that scared him.

Hansen hardly seemed to noticed the loss of the light. He went on without skipping a beat.

"The darkness is here," he continued, his voice a keening whine. "It has found us. You led it here. You led it to me. You have betrayed me!"

Willbrand eyes shot around the room nervously, but he could barely make out his companions, much less anything else. He held his sword in front of him, half crouched, ready to thrust or spring in any direction. Was there really something here, or was it just the ranting of a madman? Whatever was going on, from the sound of his voice, Hansen seemed to think he was in deadly danger.

Suddenly the man screamed.

Willbrand jerked involuntarily. He could see movement in the darkness, but he couldn't make out individuals. There was a flash of movement, then a loud banging as if a body was slammed against the wall.

And then he saw it. A large shape suddenly loomed out of the darkness, at least twice as big as himself. Some kind of beast, misshapen, not even vaguely human. Dull red eyes gleamed in the dark, towering over him. And was that a huge claw he saw, rearing back to strike?

He dodged to the side, almost falling as he stumbled over something in the dark. He brought his sword up, preparing to thrust it forward.

"Willbrand, no!"

Merigan's voice, sounding practically right in his ear, made him hesitate for a split second.

With a sparkling hiss, light flared in the room again, momentarily blinding them all. Willbrand turned away and blinked.

When he lifted his head Merigan stood in front of him, with no sign of the apparition.

He frowned and looked around. Hansen lay face down on the floor. Blood tricked from one ear. The others stood staring at him, their faces pale.

"What happened?" Willbrand said slowly. His eyes still roamed the room. What had happened to the beast? Had it done that to Hansen?

Ktan stooped down beside the old man and examined him. A moment later he looked up.

"He's dead."

The others were silent for a moment.

"I didn't think it was possible," Merigan said slowly.

"Nor I," Ktan agreed.

"Umm, could someone please tell me what just happened?" Saramis said slowly.

Willbrand wholeheartedly agreed. At least he wasn't the only one who seemed lost.

"He had my power," Merigan said slowly, disbelief obvious in her voice.

"No, not really," Ktan said. "Even without training he couldn't match what you can do. No man can. It must have taken a supreme effort on his part just to do what he did. And he couldn't have done it at all without this."

He reached down and pulled a small pouch off of Hansen's belt.

"What's that?" Saramis questioned.

"Karo root, if I'm not mistaken," Ktan said, slowly opening the pouch. He looked inside for a minute, then poured out a little bit of brown powder onto his hand.

"Karo root," Saramis said slowly. It obviously meant something to him, but not to Willbrand.

"What's Karo root?" the young noble asked.

"A mind altering drug," Ktan replied. "Many people have made many claims about it. I don't know if they're all true, or if any of them are true, for that matter, but it has been rumored to give the user a limited ability to mimic a Maidens talents."

"A maiden?" Willbrand repeated. "What's all this talk about maidens? You mean Merigan? You mean there are others like her? And are you telling me that Queen Irissa is one of them?"

"And what was that thing?" he continued, turning to look at Merigan. "Was that a figment of my imagination? Did he put that image in my head?"

He stood there looking at her, waiting for an explanation, while the others just stood there in silence. Finally Merigan nodded slowly.

"They'll be plenty of time for explanations," Ktan spoke up. "There's nothing more for us here. Let's go."

Ktan turned and walked out of the room. The others just stood there for a moment, then slowly followed as well, until Willbrand was alone in the dark, standing there frustrated, wondering what it was going to take to get some answers. Eventually Merigan's voice floated to him from the entrance.

"You coming?"

He hesitated a moment more. Finally he slapped his sword back in its scabbard and followed her out. There wasn't much else he could do.