:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - King Stefan's Birthday ::

King Stefan's Birthday

28 Sviftmont 1007AC, Specularum

"Hadrian? It's Lana. This is... awkward, I haven't seen you in SUCH a long time. I need you in Glaston, or rather my villagers do. Please could you come."

She looked at Gregorius. "There. It's done. Now we wait... and we reassure."

Five days have passed. You arise shortly after dawn and decide to try locating Hadrian. As with the last few times you have done this, you see him looking rather haggard. It is much lighter where he is than in Glaston. Your experience teleporting to and from Sundsvall gives you the knowledge to infer that Hadrian is probably far to the east - the Isle of Dawn or beyond.

He is on a bleak and barren hillside. A strong wind pulls at his travel-worn robes and tangled hair. There are others near to him. You catch glimpses of weapons and armour. An expression of alarm crosses Hadrian's face and he points up at something you cannot see before beginning to cast spells. He unleashes a lightning bolt just before an arrow takes him in the shoulder. A shadow passes over the scene and then rolling flame fills your view.

Had it not been for her other concerns she probably would have enjoyed the festivities a great deal. Most of the guests were in fine form. Even the King almost smiled on two occasions.

Princess Adriana could be seen fielding questions from ladies of the court regarding how she was finding motherhood while simultaneously keeping an eye on Lord Devon who had been cornered by Dona Marianita and her fan which, as Lana recalled from previous encounters, seemed to possess a life of its own and was endlessly in motion. It would gain her nothing, she told herself, to render her desperation plain for all to see therefore she made the effort of engaging with other attendees first. The night was yet young.

Shalander stood speaking with Lord Alexius a short distance off.

Halia and Retameron Antonic were also present, talking with a minor lord whose name Lana could not recall.

On her way to pay her respects to the King she was intercepted by Queen Olivia.

"Lady Budanter, I am so glad you could make it tonight. We were very sorry to hear of the misfortune that has befallen your estate. A terrible business but no doubt the situation is under control now you have returned."

"Your Majesty," Lana returned with a curtsey, repressing the force of habit which would have had her address the former Duchess as Her Grace. Her voice was low but conversational nevertheless. There was no need to give the other courtiers an easier time of eavesdropping. "Word travels quickly. Yes it's been something of a nightmare although things could have gone much worse and I believe that was what the Enemy hoped would transpire." She allowed herself a smile: well done to me; ya boo to him. "The people rely on Father Gregorius so for their spiritual wellbeing - we are still picking up the pieces as it were, yet we are managing." Her pleasant smile continued as her gaze strayed to Marianita. "How are things with you and the family? Do Valen and Justin fare well? I haven't managed to get speaking with either of them, it is a blessing to see everyone enjoying themselves. Such a joyous occasion marks a pleasant contrast to... well, Life's other concerns. As ever your hosting skills are beyond compare, you make it all seem so effortless."

The Queen was all sympathetic nods and smiles. Her sons were well. Her grandson was well. She was planning something special for the King's sixtieth birthday next year ... yadda yadda. Adriana enjoyed her visit at the start of the month. She should visit more often. It would be good to see her regularly at court - that was, when she was fully confident of the security of her estate ... yadda yadda.

After five minutes or so the Queen moved on to the next person of interest and Lana found herself with a fairly clear approach to the King.

"Many happy returns your Majesty." She grinned. "It is good to see you and your family keeping so well. Under your guidance the kingdom goes from strength to strength. The same cannot be said for others, much less fortunate, such as the elves of Alfheim," her voice dropped, "who I can personally attest, as no doubt Shalander has, are fleeing their forest, running for their lives. The danger which pursues them is real and it is relentless. I understand from Captain Brightsword of the Red Arrow clan that there have been... formal discussions between them and us?" She said 'us' but could not help but feel mildly excluded. "Is it correct that they are heading our way?"

"Is that a real question Lady Budanter?" the King asked gruffly, waving away a servitor offering him another goblet of wine. "I think you well know the answer is yes. Ambassador Shalander mentioned you had been good enough to escort him to Darokin. He appreciated the service. I would have appreciated it if you had managed to escort Lord Pyotrev safely back to Specularum but I suppose you couldn't find him – an exodus of that size is bound to be chaotic."

Lana cast her mind back, recalling a breakfast at the Karameikan embassy in Alfheim. "Has... His Lordship made it back?"

"No. The last message received from him was shortly before you took off with Ambassador Shalander."

"I could seek him out if he remains with the elven host." She hadn't thought to bring her crystal ball to the social engagement but made a mental note to scry on the ambassador's whereabouts when she returned home.

"That would be appreciated but only if you are able to do so without leaving your lands unprotected."

The smack on her wrist was practically audible. She considered a sassy response but decided against it given the other courtiers within earshot. "Funny, the Queen said something along the same lines. I was thinking of hiring more guards. I'll specifically have them patrol the road. And I will seek to determine the ambassador's location - if I can return him, I will. " She gave him a look to say, will that do?

He nodded with satisfaction and paused briefly before asking, "So what was it you really wanted to ask Lady Budanter?"

Lana opened her mouth to reply, held the King's gaze, faltered and laughed. "Am I that transparent? I guess I wanted to hear it confirmed by you, sire. And to find out the ins and outs of what's been agreed. Not that your supply of forests is in short, err," she held his gaze again, during which time there was momentary awkwardness, "... supply but where precisely will they settle? I have seen their camp and they are ... thousands in number." She frowned. "The Shadow Elves are doing their utmost for it not to be so."

Stefan nodded again. As ever his reply was blunt and matter-of-fact but his tone was not hostile. "Yes, there are thousands of them – which will greatly strengthen our armed forces."

Lana considered this and nodded thoughtfully.

"The Callari may 'adopt' some of them," the King went on, "but otherwise they will settle where I give them leave to settle and that's really none of your concern Lady Budanter…"

She didn't realise she had pulled a long face until after it had happened.

"… unless you mean to specifically request that I direct some towards your lands, in which case I will take that under consideration."

"That would be worthwhile, my liege. My villagers could do with the boost to their protection beyond the additional guards I intend to engage. I seek to encourage new industry on my lands as well, some of which might work well as joint enterprises with the elves? Their presence might also deter those who would seek to block the road."

Her thoughts strayed to the prophecy she had unearthed about a dark power rising within the Dymrak. She decided against telling the King about it. It was his birthday, after all.

He nodded again, appearing satisfied. "Fine. It will be made known that you will welcome a certain number of elves on your lands. We can discuss the details another time."

He looked around the crowded room.

"You are setting an example for others in this Lady Budanter - may they be as welcoming."

"Let's hope so. Oh," her mouth formed a hard line, "and Bargle's attacked my village again."

"I heard there was an attack," in a neutral tone.

"I'm dealing with it. I just wanted to let you know, it's happening."

"Good. Deal with it however you must but keep the road through your estate safe and secure for travellers. That's my charge to you."

The spindly form of Lord Zogrev Yarol had been hovering nearby. He took the opportunity to interject. "Good evening Lady Budanter. I apologise for the interruption but I must speak with the King. This will just take a few minutes sire."

Both men took their leave. She looked around for Princess Adriana. She was still surrounded by a flock of ladies.

She drew as close to the Princess as she could manage. "Your Royal Highness," she called, progressing through the throng. She smiled at the court ladies as prettily and in as placatory a manner as she could manage. "My ladies, I am loathe to interrupt but might I tear the Princess away for a few moments? There is a matter her father has bid me take up with her."

Taking the Princess by the arm she led her away through a sea of protestation, and leaned in to whisper: "I do apologise but there's a boar out the back that urgently needs speared."

Adriana gave a wry laugh and was gladly led away from the others. "That was exhausting. Most of them mean well but I don't know which ones are whispering into my mother's ear."

"How are things between you and her?" Lana took care not to be overheard. "Is she being as... supportive as might be hoped? Are you still planning to withdraw to your private manor?"

Adriana answered that she and Devon still intended to leave the palace. Things with her mother had not been easy. She hoped a bit of distance would improve things.

While they were talking, Shalander approached them both, said how well they were both looking and expressed his relief that Lana had safely returned to Karameikos.

Lana returned the compliment, relieved to see that the ambassador also appeared well.

"It was touch and go for the most part," she began in a low tone, "and sadly I have let myself be parted from my carpet." She recalled speeding in the direction of Selenica with Shalander as her passenger, wishing she had cast her Scent spell on the conveyance before inviting the ambassador to accompany her. It had succumbed to more than mere wear and tear after months of constant use. Now it was gone from her possession entirely.

The ambassador interrupted her before she had a chance to say much more. "I must apologise Lady Budanter. I mentioned to His Majesty your kindness in escorting me to Captain Brightsword and I may be mistaken but he did not seem pleased."

"Oh?" Lana's brow furrowed. Surely she had not acted in an improper manner? She was left unsure what to make of the King's thinking.

"I meant only to express my gratitude," the elf went on, "I hope I have not harmed your standing at court in some way."

"But you didn't tell my father that Lady Budanter was further assisting this Captain Brightsword, did you ambassador?" interjected Adriana in a low voice.

Looking abashed Shalander replied, "No, Princess. My impression was that the King would not have welcomed that particular news at that particular moment."

"I'm not in the habit of keeping secrets from my father but I'll make an exception for you two. Now go on Lana, tell us what happened."

Concisely Lana ran through most of what had happened - how she needed to go back for her carpet and Lord Pyotrev, alluded to the ongoing Shadow Elf ambushes, the possibility of spies in the Chossum and Erendyl clans, and the exposed nature of the camp at Selenica in the meantime. "All things considered, really not good."

The two listened attentively to her abridged recounting of events. Shalander calmly but strongly objected to any suggestion that the Erendyl clan could be sheltering shadow elves. Adriana was fascinated as she had not heard much about any of what was being discussed.

"How did you make your way back?" Lana quizzed Shalander.

The elf looked somewhat abashed and confessed that Cardia had happened to be in Selenica.

"You didn't happen to see Lord Pyotrev?"

The ambassador answered that, no, he'd never met his opposite number.

"And to top it all," Lana said conversationally, mainly for Adriana's benefit, "when I get home I discover Bargle has petrified handfuls of my villagers. Not something I can reverse on my own..." she chewed her lip, "hence I intend to grovel to Dona Marianita. Any suggestions, either of you?"

They both shook their heads. "Good luck with that," said Adriana.

"Come," said Shalander, "Doña Marianita and I are on good terms. Maybe if we approach her together…"

Lana gave the princess a look that said 'here goes nothing' as she took Shalander's arm and let him lead her off.

Adriana asked whether she would be so good as to extract her lord husband from the Glantrian ambassador's grasp and send him to her.

As they advanced through the hall at a leisurely pace Lana asked:

"Why the beef between Stefan and Brightsword? Have they fallen out for some reason?"

It hadn't occurred to her before but presumably Brightsword expected to integrate into Karameikos' military structure, at general level or maybe as head of the Elvenguard. That was, unless he was leading his people to Karameikos before setting off on some other path.

"Beef? I don't understand the expression my lady and know nothing of any trade of cattle if that's what you mean. His Majesty King Stefan and Captain Brightsword cannot have any argument because they do not know one another. They have never communicated in any way so far as I know."

"Uhh-hmm. The King certainly appeared to see the benefit in boosting Karameikos' military prowess." It seemed there were other factors of which Lana was unaware. She returned her attention to the task at hand. "I know so little about Dona Marianita," she said glumly, "we've only met once or twice, never properly spoken at length… I feel like I should be coming to this better prepared."

"There is no preparing for Dona Marianita Lucia de Leon y Valdez. You simply get whatever the winds of her mood blow in your direction. What do you need to know? Her temper is easily stirred but easily soothed too." Ah yes, Lana thought. Ah yes. She momentarily recalled Master Sylarin demonstrating proficiency at the Tower of Satolas. "Before Alphatians started visiting Specularum she was almost certainly the most powerful magic-user in the city. She knows more about Karameikan society than most Karameikans. She speaks excellent Elvish, is a wonderful dancer, throws the most lavish parties and is generally much better appreciated by the lords of the court than the ladies."

By that point they had drawn too close to Marianita for the conversation to continue. She was a tiny woman - Lana had over half a foot on her - but her elaborate glittering gown made her stand out a mile.

She smiled wickedly at Shalander and gave him her hand to kiss. Lord Devon looked relieved at the interruption. Dona Marianita looked up at the newcomers. "Lady… … Budanter," she said with slight hesitation that might or might not have been deliberate, "what an interesting dress you are wearing tonight."

The village of Glaston with its many outlying homesteads relied heavily on dairy trade… in that moment Lana could not help but visualise a glittering milking parlour with one of its stalls lying empty. Equally she recalled Sundsvall and Galatia Allatrian giving her a visual up-and-down. Would she ever get it right?

"Lady Ambassador," she forced herself to smile pleasantly, naturally. "And my Lord." She bowed before Devon. "I regret tearing you away but the Princess requests your presence, if you can spare her a moment."

Lord Devon took his leave as quickly as good manners permitted.

Lana turned back to Marianita. "I hope my dress does not attract attention for the wrong reasons - alas I have been abroad of late and in any event have never had much talent keeping abreast of current fashions. Do you know, I've a whole wardrobe of Glantrian attire but I daresay it's now woefully outdated. Whereas you, my Lady," nodded at her gown approvingly, "no star shines as brightly tonight as you do."

Inwardly she cringed, realising that her strategy, by and large, would consist of steering a path between flattery and self-deprecation.

Marianita nodded sympathetically and spoke for a while about the difficulties of keeping up with the fashions in an isolated locale (the invasion of Glantri in the summer by the 'filth of the Broken Lands' had made matters that much worse) - although she noted that Karameikan makers are coming on in leaps and bounds. Lana shook her head as if to lament that fashion should be made to suffer in times of strife.

"To be truthful," she ventured once the small talk had continued for long enough, "I had hoped you would be in attendance tonight and I'm glad we get to talk like this. You see, I wish to prevail upon your generous spirit. I have recently returned to my estate in the east to find something of a calamity has arisen - one which, I am sorry to say, I am powerless to put right. It is not I but a number of my villagers who have borne the injury, not by any fault of their own making…" She squirmed, feeling really rather awkward. Bloody Hadrian. "What I mean to say is that I would like to ask for your assistance, milady."

The ambassador arched a perfect dark eyebrow. "Oh? Really? What terrible calamity has befallen your little village my dear? Is it goblins? I hear they swarm like rats in that part of the land."

"Indeed we have goblins aplenty but we have means of keeping them in check. No," she attempted nonchalance, "a rampant cockatrice… far from a natural occurrence, I needn't tell you. I managed to incapacitate the blasted thing but not before it petrified a significant number of my villagers. Including," her voice wobbled unintentionally, "two of my apprentices."

"Oh dear, how awful! And where did this cockatrice come from?"

Lana took a moment and answered with utmost calm. "Bargle."

"Bargle? The Infamous? Why ever did he leave a cockatrice in your village? That was careless of him. They are valuable creatures. When I was last in Glantri the Monster Handlers' Syndicate was charging fifteen Golden Ducats a feather!"

"Funny, I thought the same - an immobilised bird, an immaculate carcass, a quick Teleport and a healthy renewal of my finances." Her state of calm slipped and she gave a laugh which, reaching her own ears, sounded unhinged. "But no. That mangy, raggedy-winged bird?"

Guk Guk Gaawwk! She recalled seeing the ugly, diseased-looking bird, roughly the size of a large goose, explode up out of the inn's trapdoor. Beating the air with its shabby wings it had come straight at her as she carefully spoke words of magic, yet they achieved nothing. With a 'raawwkk' it bypassed the pile of food to circle around the kitchen table which she had overturned as a barrier and its beak tore through one of her images… refusing to succumb to desperation she began another spell, recalling the fearsome chimera she had engaged just days before, and to her immense relief the monster froze in its tracks. Later in the basement of her tower she focussed calmly, reached out through the words of her spell and felt the tangled threads of Bargle's enchantment, severing them one after another after another…

She sighed. "The principal cleric of my estate in altered form. Bargle and I have formed a… mutual undertaking, you might call it, one which I would rather keep between the two of us but he plays by his own rules as you must know. So there you have it, my most pressing concern of late. I would be indebted to you, milady, were you to agree to help."

The ambassador played with her fan.

"A mutual undertaking? You mean to antagonize one another? A duel would be the civilized way of settling your differences but sadly that's just not done here. A shame. A good duel is always entertaining. If you get the chance you should try to catch one at the Great School one day. You'll find it five hundred ducats well spent and you might learn some tricks to help against that rogue Bargle. Anyway my dear I'm very sorry but it simply isn't possible for me to help with your little situation. I have the magic of course but Glantri cannot involve itself in the domestic disputes of Karameikan wizards. Glantri must remain neutral. I'm sure you of all people understand how it is. Besides, Bargle's writings are well regarded at the Great School of Magic and I believe he has a few friends among the nobility whereas you ... well, no matter. I'm sure you'll find someone who can help. Perhaps an Alphatian or two will feel disposed to assist. Ambassador Shalander, you must ask me to dance later. This evening could do with a little more life. Ah Prince Valen ..."

She left her standing there. Shalander gave her an apologetic look.

The self-important cow!! Lana clenched her fists so hard that her knuckles turned white, and glared after the ambassador willing snakes to rise from her scalp so that her gaze might turn Marianita to stone. She considered yelling some obscenity at her back but decided to preserve the remnants of her dignity.

"I will not forget this," she mouthed silently.

The ambassador's words rang inside her head. Perhaps an Alphatian will feel disposed to assist… Without doubt Marianita's comment had been meant as a jibe but they might be Lana's next port of call. Casting her gaze around the hall she sought any other person with magical ability. Not far off she spied Retameron sharing a joke with Lord Korrigan. The two men were laughing uproariously and Lord Korrigan was leaning upon the smaller man's shoulder (at six foot tall and nearly two hundred pounds Retameron was still the smaller man), trying not to spill his wine.

She addressed Shalander. "That run-in has left a sour taste in my mouth. I believe I will head home shortly but I should speak with Halia first. I don't suppose you saw where she went?"

She gave thought to researching the bloody reversal spell herself. If only she could get hold of a suitable component… so many thoughts were swarming in her mind, keeping her from thinking clearly… after a quick mathematical calculation it seemed likely that there would be enough gold in the estate coffers for at least one attempt at research. Still, she thought, it could be useful to pick Halia's brains if she was still about.

Shalander confessed that he had not seen which way Halia had gone. He wasn't particularly well acquainted with her and, indeed, had had to think for a moment who she was. The elf took his leave and headed off in the direction of Estella Whitehall.

As Lana approached the two laughing men they did their best to sober up and bow to her. Retameron revealed that Lord Yarol had asked to speak with Halia a while ago. He wasn't sure where she was but she was no longer with Lord Yarol because he could be seen on the other side of the room with the King and Queen.

Lana undertook a circuitous path around about the room which eventually led to the minister. "Ah Lady Budanter, apologies, the Baroness asked that I speak to you. She has been called away to the Magicians' Guild and asked that you might consider joining her. We received word this evening that Guildmaster Teldon has returned."

Oh! Lana reacted with surprised delight, so much so that thoughts of how she might give Marianita her comeuppance got put aside. "This is excellent news your Lordship, with your leave I shall make my way to the Guild immediately."

"As you will Lady Budanter but you do not need to ask my leave," the Minister returned with a meaningful glance towards the King And Queen.

She followed his line of sight, nodded and uurrhhrrmmed.

"Do you require an escort?"

"You are kind to offer but I shall be fine going unaccompanied, thank you."

She headed in the direction of the royal couple to make her excuses. The Queen thanked her for coming. The King said that Teldon would no doubt be anxious to speak with her.

Relieved that the formalities of the evening had been concluded, she cast her second flight spell of the day and headed southeast across the roofs of Bricktop, glad to be avoiding the muck-strewn streets underneath. Arriving at the Guild she had no trouble gaining admittance to Teldon's tower residence and found Halia and Teldon seated in the candlelit study. Teldon rose as she entered. His beard was ungroomed and his robes were crumpled and crusted with salt. He did not look tired however. Indeed he appeared more vigorous than the exhausted old man in whose company Lana had travelled to Alphatia. His hair was just as white and he had just as many wrinkles as ever before but his blue eyes were shining fiercely, he seemed to stand straighter and there was an intangible aura of strength about him.

"Good evening Lady Budanter. It is good to see you. We will have much to talk about no doubt but firstly ... do you know where Karnus is?"

Lana underwent a flashback to another meeting, before the excursion to the faraway eastern empire, before she had crafted her carpet. Had the question ever been posed in reverse, she wondered?

"I am glad to see you returned to us, Teldon, evidently you have benefitted from embracing the adventuresome lifestyle again. As for Karnus, I regret that I do not know his whereabouts. We keep in touch but intermittently so... and my inability to monitor his movements is of his making. Why do you ask?"

Teldon's expression was dark.

"I ask because his foolish little escapades at Redstone may very well have doomed Karameikos and I would like to hear his version of events before I..."

He gave a disgusted snort. Lana quivered slightly at 'doomed' and gave Halia a sorry look.

"Oh I knew he wasn't happy about our agreement with Alphatia," Teldon went on. "That was clear. But to so publically ally with Thyatis and Glantri? And what did it achieve? A few more months before Redstone was forced to surrender anyway! I hope he and his Glantrian friends have some ideas about how to stop Alphatia because the whole Known World is going to need them now."

"Komughan Krinagar," Lana said feebly. "I think of him now and again. Those others in Sundsvall, too - remember the red-bearded guy? Self-styled freedom fighters, limited means at their disposal but spreading carnage with the courage of their convictions. All that while we were in Alphatia, Karnus garnered those connections while you and I stood by, Teldon. We did not intervene."

"Hmmph. Yes, that is a fair point but we were still struggling with our own misgivings at that point and crucially that was before we sat at the Empress' own table and made promises in the name of Karameikos."

Lana straightened.

"He is not here to defend himself. He has acted as his conscience dictated. I choose to believe that he has a conscience, that he retains a shred of his humanity. The last he and I spoke, he alluded to saving the world itself. He must have seen his acts on the Isle of Dawn as a means to that end. He ought to have acted less conspicuously," she thought about it and frowned, "or he might have declined to accompany us to Sundsvall altogether but you asked him and what is done is done." She seated herself. "The question is - for those of us to wish Karameikos to survive, as I believe Karnus does on some level because so many of his family are still here… what can be done to stave off disaster?"

Both Teldon and Halia looked a little surprised at her response.

"Your defense of Karnus does you credit Lana," said Teldon in a softer voice. "You've grown up a bit. And you are quite right – I'm sure he thought he was doing the right thing and of course we owe it to him to hear him out. I would just have expected more subtlety from Master Perdissium than parading around with a Wizard-Prince and the very Glantrians who killed General Torenal and burned Aasla!"

Halia interjected at this point. "Unfortunately, Karnus being declared a traitor did little to soothe the anger of the Alphatian delegates. They have all gone now... that is to say they have cut off contact with the Guild."

"They’re gone? All of them?"

Halia confirmed with a nod.

Now it was Lana's turn get cross. "Great, just great. Right when I needed them." She kicked herself for not getting round to priorities at the right time.

"It seems," said Teldon, "broadly speaking, that the Alphatian Grand Council is now split three ways. There are those who oppose Empress Eriadna and 'her' war. There are those who want to destroy Thyatis, obliterate Glantri and wipe out the Heldannic Knights but are generally indifferent to the other 'insignificant' nations like us. Finally, there are now those who want to punish Karameikos for sending a Thyatian spy to the Imperial Court and think they might as well just conquer the entire Known World to keep us all in line. The most favourable attitude towards us is indifference and for the moment that is still the position of the strongest faction but I do not find that particularly reassuring. It seems we must hope the first faction get their way and the Empress is forced to back down but how likely is that when Alphatia is so obviously winning?"

She had listened to his analysis with interest. "Yes… so it seems the key to our remaining intact through what is to come will be to remain insignificant. I keep imagining Eriadna - such a powerful woman - as the personification of the Empire. Of course all it would take is for a one of the Thousand Wizards to duel her or whatever else, and a massive shift would follow. It is clear that we must not be seen to do anything more which might rouse Alphatia from its indifference… no doubt the King will defer to whatever course of action or inaction you advise, Teldon."

"King - yes, I'll have to get used to that. I'll have to speak with him soon but that can wait until tomorrow. The problem is I don't really have any advice - only knowledge and observations but those should be valuable."

She nodded emphatically.

He looked at Lana and for a moment she saw the old weariness settle on his shoulders and cloud his eyes. "Doesn't this conversation seem very familiar?" he said with a sardonic smile.

She smiled. "Forgive me, after everything I’ve been dealing with lately I can’t bring myself to laugh. But… yes. It’s like we’re back there again. Camped high in the Aaslan Spur, or bedded down among orphans in the blue dragons’ lair in Aasla. Did you travel around the kingdoms as you intended? Are you back with us for good now?"

"I saw a small portion of the Empire. I would have liked to see more but when I returned to Sundsvall in the late spring and heard about Redstone my priorities changed. I spent a long time doing my best to limit the damage before embarking on the voyage home. Will I stay here? That remains to be seen."

A natural silence descended, and endured for several moments. Until -

"Say," Lana asked in a swervy change of topic manner, "I don't suppose either of you can reverse petrification? I've got this predicament, see, and rather than bore you with all the details here are the bare bones - Bargle, overexcited cockatrice on the loose and lots of my villagers turned into statues."

"Oh my!" said Halia, seemingly the first person that evening to be genuinely shocked by the news. She shook her head. "Sorry Lana but that's beyond me."

She gave him a shrug and a half-smile to say don't sweat it, thanks all the same.

Teldon gave her a thoughtful look. "That's a problem but a few details would be good. When did this happen and what have you done about it?"

Having thought she would deal with the problem concisely Lana visualised the scenario unravelling like the threads of her dishevelled carpet. Wherever it was.

"Well I was in what used to be Alfheim at the time. So I scry and see my one proper apprentice at home - Mirko Greznev, lovely chap, humble - has been turned to stone. Other villagers too. It turns out Bargle has kidnapped my lead cleric but returned him inside a crate in the form of a cockatrice, of course somebody opens the bloody box and it goes on a rampage. Eventually it gets trapped in the inn's cellar and I manage to immobilise it; praise be to the Immortals that I resist slaying it outright. I restore Father Gregorius but the change affecting my villagers is more permanent. Hadrian is away, Marianita takes immense pleasure in telling me to get stuffed, and the Alphatians have gone off in a stink."

"What used to be Alfheim!?!?"

She filled Teldon in and he stared at her aghast in complete disbelief. Unable to think of what to say he motioned for her to continue.

After she finished there was silence.

"Lana," said Teldon in his 'teacher' voice, "I fear you are playing right into Bargle's hands. Valtanivark no doubt taught you to work well with others and the importance of cooperation. That is all very well and I will not say he was wrong but if you had been my apprentice, if you had come to the Guild for your tuition, you would have been taught another lesson: we learn best from solving our own problems, by applying our own talents and never relying too much on others. You have the potential to free your villagers; you just lack the particular spell required. Forgive me if I sound harsh but instead of seeking help that others were unable or unwilling to give you should have been spending your time reading every book you could find on petrification. You could be well progressed in your research by now. If Bargle could see you - and for all you know he might well be watching - I'm sure he would be laughing himself sick to see you begging charity from more powerful wizards. That just demonstrates how powerless you actually are in his eyes to defend yourself or Glaston from his whims. The gift magic gives us is the ability to overcome impossible problems. If we do not know the right spell to solve a problem, we can research it! If a suitable spell does not exist, we can create a new one! What is the point of studying magic if we are only willing to engage with questions to which we already have the answers. So Lana, my advice is that you research the magic you need and show Bargle you can stand on your own two feet. He will have to do better if he is to get one over on you. Do the work and save the villagers of Glaston but be sure to make copies of your notes to forcibly insert in Bargle when next you get the chance. You will grow much more as a magic-user that way - grow intellectually from the research that is, not from shoving parchment up Bargle but I'll wager both will be satisfying in different ways. Consider the full resources of the Guild, such as they are, at your disposal."

A pause followed. Then:-

"Teldon," Lana replied calmly, "I believe you came all the way back from Sundsvall just to deliver that lecture. You have the right of it, though..." she sighed audibly, "I've embarrassed myself in front of Marianita and half a week has passed me by."

She had planned to research other spells but in that moment found herself accepting that the fourth attempt at her enchantment project had been parked. What Teldon was suggesting was without doubt the most rational approach to the problem. And it would have its compensations.

"Pfft," said Teldon, "I've embarrassed myself in front of her plenty of times. For a long time her magical knowledge was so far beyond mine it was ridiculous. I've learned a thing or two in Alphatia though. It turns out you can teach an old wizard new tricks."

"If you'll excuse me," said Halia, "I need to be getting back to the birthday celebrations. I will come by the Guild tomorrow - there's a particular Darokinian apprentice whose acquaintance you might wish to make. And Teldon - you and I still have a great deal of Guild business with Teldon to discuss."

She left Lana and Teldon to catch up some more.

"As ever… the starting point is to determine where a suitable component might be found. Or…" In her mind she turned over what she knew regarding the workings of the spell, "should I say - components."

Teldon followed her thinking and nodded. "Well, you must have some ideas for transmuting flesh to stone at least" he says.

"The usual suspects, certainly... basilisk, cockatrice, medusa... it was a bull-type creature that petrified me, a denizen of the Plane of Earth naturally. How I'd go about finding one though, that'll be the trick."

Her thoughts strayed to Hule or Sind... but even as she spoke the words, something stirred inside her memory. There had been two messages in close succession, barely a minute apart… Yes.

It was as if a Glantrian light globe had illuminated itself:-

"Every elf has a monster story. In Flaurmont a beholder destroyed several villages. There have been dragons. Basilisks and gorgons are almost common now. Frightening but something is being unsaid."

It was late. The next day would be the first of Eirmont. A whole new month beckoned. After a good long chat with Teldon, and with the dregs of her Fly spell in effect, she took her leave and Teleported away. Caught up in thoughts of a new spell and its workings… for the second time that day her spell went wrong. She had visualised the top floor of her abode, which comprised the guest quarters. Shaking more than a little, she found herself standing in the centre of the floorspace in the main part of the cellar - sixty feet below her intended point of arrival.

"Hoink!" said the pig inside the middle cell. Glaring at it and having nearly entombed herself within the foundations of her own tower she set about locating a bottle of good wine to settle her nerves.

Perhaps it was just chance. Perhaps she had not fully recovered from her ordeal in the Canolbarth. Perhaps the debilitating effects of Dreamland lingered with her somehow. She had no way of telling.

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