:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Runaway ::

The Runaway

"Lady Lana!"

Lana looked up from below the oak tree, realising she had come close to falling asleep in the afternoon sunshine. The book she had been poring through lay open in her lap. One of her villagers was running through the tower grounds, headed in her direction. She rose to her feet.

"Good day Arnagus!" she greeted him, resisting the urge to rub the sleep from her eyes. Then, noticing his expression – "whatever is the matter?"

The young man stopped before her. He was out of breath, having run the mile or so from the nearby village. "Milady…" he panted, "you need to come right away. A man carryin’ arms is causin’ a disturbance and threatenin’ folk."

Lana's heckles rose. She ran to her tower, deposited her book and re-emerged bearing her carpet.

"Hop on," Lana instructed, thumbing toward the carpet as it unrolled and lifted off the ground.

Arnagus did as he was bid; moments later the pair were speeding out of the grounds along the path which led south to Glaston Village.

"Tell me what you know," Lana instructed.

"He emerged from the woods," Arnagus said, "big an’ tall an’ chasing this younger fella. The young ‘un seemed scared outta his wits, he ran right at the village wall an’ near cleared it in a single bound!"

"My goodness," Lana remarked.

"Some o’ the local folk went after 'em, to see what was happening. The young fella, well, he made straight fer the Church o’ Karameikos," Arnagus went on, "and went inside. The big man followed. He ran up to the altar, threw his hands round it an’ cried, 'Sanctuary!'. Priest Barnabas hadn't a clue what to make of it. The older guy, he approached too an’ didn't seem put off, told Barnabus to mind his business then clouted the youth right round the head, he did."

"Poor Cedric," Lana said sympathetically. "I don't imagine he has prayers of Holding available to him. He'll have been deeply unsettled no doubt. What else happened?"

"The young guy was dazed," Arnagus went on, "you could tell, but he had 'is wits about himself right enough, he reached into this bag he was carrying, duckin’ an’ divin’ the whole time, and it musta been some sort o' magic potion he swigged, fer the next instant he vanished."

"Fascinating," Lana commented. The story had become more compelling.

"Anyhow that’s how things was left," the villager went on. "Some of us told the older guy to clear off but he wasn't having it. Told us to shut up if we knew what was good fer us. Seemed to me like he was lookin’ fer the boy's tracks."

The carpet cleared the stone wall which Lana had paid to be constructed by the same team who had built her tower. Surrounded by a six-foot ditch, the wall had been built over a hundred feet from any existing dwelling, to leave room for the settlement to continue expanding as settlers chose Glaston as their new home.

The carpet set down in the village square where, within the past fortnight, Lana had commissioned a new structure – a twenty-foot tall, wooden watchtower. It had been Lana's idea for keeping watch over the surrounding area, so that the villagers would have fair warning if goblins were to emerge from the nearby woodland. Local children were encouraged to clamber atop the tower to maintain a look-out. It provided a role for them within the community, or at least that was how Lana had pitched the idea to the locals.

Lana noticed various things were out of place – for one thing, the wooden ladder which provided access up the tower had been drawn up, though the platform at its top looked to be empty. Also, a burly man was clinging to the side of the structure. Something at the top had drawn his attention; he had clambered part of the way up the structure, taken a whip from his belt and was lashing it toward the upper platform. Lana wasn't sure what to make of this display however it put her in mind of a cat toying with its prey prior to devouring it. The man wore leather armour with a variety of weapons hung on his belt or slung across his back.

"Get down from there at once," Lana ordered as she jumped off her carpet.

The man's head turned. He might have been considered handsome, she thought, in a weathered and rough sort of way. He looked like he hadn't washed in a while and he sported several days' beard growth. "Little lady," the man instructed in a cavalier manner, Lana detected a Kerendan drawl as he spoke, "don't interfere if you know what's good for you. Best way and nobody gets hurt."

Lana became incensed upon hearing the man's impertinence. "Do not address me in such a tone. I am the ruler of this village and you will show me proper respect. Put aside your weapons or we'll see who gets hurt."

The man didn't oblige her; he continued doing what he was doing.

"You leave me no other option," Lana said menacingly. Glowing arrows formed in the air either side of her.

"Okay, okay!" the hunter said sharply, turning as he heard the sound of spellcasting. He relaxed his grip on the wooden supports and dropped the five or so feet to the ground beneath. "Look, this needn't turn to violence."

"You're the one refusing to stand down," Lana said flatly.

"Lady," the man sighed, "I'm doing my job. Performing a role, which I'll get paid for when I hand the little runt back in."

"You're a bounty hunter?

"Henchman, bounty hunter," the man shrugged, "call it what you will. It’s all the same to me." He smirked as the glowing arrows faded and popped out of existence, one after another, leaving a shower of amber sparkles. Lana realised then that the man had been stalling for time, knowing her spell would expire after a few moments.

"What do you wish to achieve here?"

"That's my business," the man responded, "I suggest you go about your own. It won't be long before I'm done here."

The hunter unslung a double-headed axe from across his back, causing the bystanders to mutter anxiously. Noticing the weapon, Lana too lost her focus. "What is the matter, milady?" asked one of the villagers.

"That weapon," Lana faltered. Time seemed to pass more slowly around as she recalled a similar weapon, over a year ago. Memories of the arena of Thyatis returned to her. "The last time I gazed upon such a weapon," she murmured, "it was a sign from Tarastia. Right before I acquired the Staff of Lucinius. I wonder…"

Any thought Lana had that the man might have been an Immortal herald evaporated as he hefted his weapon and began hacking the timber structure. "Hey!!" Lana's tone turned thunderous. "What do you think you're doing?!"

"Bringing the runt down," the man called.

"Stop at once! That is not your property!" Ignoring her request, the man's axe continued hacking apart the wooden tower. The timbers splintered as he landed blow after blow.

"Please make him stop!" called an fearstricken voice, sounding as if it came from the top of the lookout post.

Lana gestured in annoyance with her ringed hand and the axe lifted cleanly out of the man’s grasp, though only for a moment, as he leapt up and renewed his hold as Lana attempted to fling it aside using her ring. Momentarily distracted, the man scowled, turned and levelled a finger at Lana.

"Don't," he growled, "make me come over there."

"You presume to threaten me on my own soil?" Extending one index finger a beam of light shot forth and struck the man on one shoulder. Just a heartbeat later, his axe descended to cleave through one last timber joist. Amid a radiant flare the watchtower creaked and became unstable, careering dangerously to one side.

"Look out everybody!" Lana cried. All around voices became raised in alarm. One particular voice became a shrill cry as the tower gave a variety of groans. Villagers and livestock scattered desperately as the construction crumpled in on itself, crashing to the ground mere moments later.

Lana kicked herself for not having stopped the axeman sooner. She anxiously surveyed the wreckage, hoping none of her villagers had sustained injury. As the dust settled, two figures could be seen moving within the mass of broken planks - a curly-tailed pig, and a sandy-haired youth wearing green garments which looked too large for his wiry frame. The pig appeared to have inhaled some of the dust and dirt, and sneezed loudly.

Several planks had fallen on top of the youth, and he was bleeding from a deep cut across his forehead.

"Help him," Lana directed. Several villagers stepped forward to extricate the youth from the debris which pinned him.

"Lady Lana, I wish it to be remembered," stated an aloof voice, louder than was necessary, "that I was opposed to the construction of this tower. I always considered it a risk to have right in the middle of the village thoroughfare. I –"

"Not now, Hugonius," Lana said, turning to face the man, "please. Now is not the time."

"As you wish," he replied, with a sniff. "We will resume our discussion at a future point."

"Is the boy badly wounded?" one of the villagers was asking.

"Let me see," Lana murmured. Gingerly she stepped through the wreckage and knelt by the youth's side as the villagers removed the last of the planks which pinned him. He was no more than eighteen years of age, wearing clothes which were much too big for him. Despite it being the end of summer and still warm he wore a makeshift scarf; it appeared to be a skirt which had been ripped and bound around his neck, knotted in places to secure it in position. Lana inspected the wound on the youth's forehead, then attempted to remove the scarf so that she might place her fingertips against his neck. The boy's eyes half-opened, and he feebly pushed Lana's hand aside.

"I beg you," he murmured weakly, "keep him away."

"Hush," Lana soothed. "You're safe. You need rest. We'll talk later."

At her direction several villagers lifted the boy, laid him on Lana's carpet and carried him in the direction of her tower.

"Sausages." The voice belonged to Agatha Bakewell who, like others, was keeping an eye on the pig. It wandered around the village square, sniffing here and there. "That's what that awful man deserves to be turned into. Or good thick-cut bacon."

"What will we do with him?" asked one voice. A number of faces turned to Lana questioningly. She froze.

"That's right," she said after a while. "It's up to me to decide. He should be charged with… criminal damage to property, for one thing. Intimidation and threat of violence, that's another. Oh, and breaching the peace certainly."

"Typical brass-necked Thyatian, if you ask me," said the owner of the general store. "Full of his own importance, not answerable to anybody else." Others gave mutters indicating that they held similar views.

"I'll think about what his, erm, sentence should be." Lana couldn't help but cast her gaze among the villagers, as if seeking their validation. She was still new to the whole ruling thing. To her relief she was met with supportive nods.

"Milady," said one of the bystanders. "This was in the rubble. We believe the boy was carrying it." A sack was handed over. Not a large one, by any means. But it was brimming with contents nevertheless.

"Stolen property, I'll wager," said another villager loudly.

"Couldn't agree more," said another. "Did you see the clothes the lad was wearing? Easily two sizes too big for 'im. Looked like they'd been pilfered off of somebody's washing line."

"Think you might be onto something there…"

Lana stared in surprise into the sack which she had opened. It contained several vials of liquid, bound in cloth to keep them from breaking (by some miracle none had smashed during the collapse of the watchtower), a dagger and a sling, a slender length of wood which Lana imagined could only be a wand, and several rolls of parchment bound with ribbon. She closed the sack and her mind wandered while the villagers' babble washed over her. The men had departed bearing her carpet, and she hadn't a Fly spell memorised, therefore she would be required to walk back to her tower on foot. Every step along the path she would be plagued by curiosity as to how the youth had come by such items.

Lana sat in her floating disc armchair while sunshine streamed through the unshuttered windows of her lounge. The villagers had deposited the youth on her couch by the unlit fireplace. He had passed out while the villagers were transporting him to the tower. His expression was calm, a contrast to the concern which had been etched so deeply after the watchtower collapsed on him.

Something about his scarf nagged at her. Seating herself lightly on the couch, she began unpicking the knots which held the fabric around his neck. He stirred at her touch but did not awaken. When the scarf fell away, it revealed an iron collar. Lana's brow furrowed, realising what this signified. There were markings on the collar. She did not need magic to comprehend what was written there.

I am the property of the great wizard Suetonius, the inscription read, written in plain Thyatian script, I have run away. Return me for reward.

She withdrew to her armchair to consider what this meant. The seat moulded itself around her re-assuringly, providing comfortable support. After a while of contemplation, she reached for her spellbook.

Time passed and slowly the youth awoke. He lurched upright, looking around anxiously. His hand shot to the exposed collar around his neck, then his eyes fixed apprehensively on Lana. His body tensed as if ready to bolt at any second.

"Relax," Lana said calmly. "You've been out for ages. If I wanted to harm you, or return you to your master, I would have done so already."

The youth took a moment to digest this. He stared at Lana with wide eyes, as if trying to decide whether he could trust her. "You were there, in the village. When the tower collapsed."

Lana nodded. "It is my village. Tell me about the man who pursued you."

"My master sent him," the youth replied. "A bounty hunter who has performed tasks for him over the years. They have a working relationship of sorts." The youth's expression turned sour. He pulled up the voluminous breeches he wore, revealing legs covered in long welts. "Pallidus takes pleasure in inflicting pain. His whip gave me these."

"That is appalling," Lana replied, "but begs the question - what did you do to deserve such treatment?"

"Little, in truth," the slave replied.

Lana's eyebrows rose. "Allow me to play advocate for a moment. What might you have done, in your master's eyes, to warrant being treated in such a manner?"

"Nothing!" the youth protested, his mouth contorting in an angry grimace. "It is what he has done to me. He delights in belittlement, robbing others of their dignity, inflicting curses… I was only ever loyal to him."

"The sad truth remains," Lana said flatly. "that by Thyatian law, you are your master's property and he can do with you as he wishes. Within certain limits of course. Would he say his actions went beyond what the law considers fair and reasonable?"

The youth stared at her miserably but said nothing.

"I did not say that I agree with how things are in Thyatis," Lana continued quietly. "The King of Karameikos deems slavery to be improper. Yet we accept that for greater nations to operate... it is a matter of necessity. Otherwise the Empire would not function."

"Milady," the slave replied, "I am no longer within Thyatis. I wish to start a new life. I came here hoping for the chance to start my life anew, and to leave my past behind me. I am on Karameikan soil, so am I not a freedman, protected by your King’s Law?”

"Technically, yes. Yet you chose to bring part of your past with you. You brought a sack, did you not?"

The youth's eyes widened, and he looked all around him, clearly still anxious.

"It is in a place of safekeeping." In her mind's eye she pictured the wood panelling of her staircase; the sack of magical items was stashed inside one of its openings.

The youth's expression hardened. "You wish to retain the items for your own purposes."

"They were not yours to take in the first place," Lana said sternly. "Not only have you run away from your Master, but you stole from him as well. Is it any wonder he sent an agent to pursue you?"

"You have no idea!" the youth scowled bitterly. "The acts I was forced to perform, the mocking and the belittlement I endured... the lies..." His expression contorted with resentment. "My master would offer me freedom, then snatch it away and laugh as my hopes fell apart. He would gift coins to me when he was in good form, then days later he would reconsider and confiscate the money, so that I had no hope of saving enough to buy my freedom. Also," he went on, "I can read and write, I’m smart though my master would never acknowledge it. He used to mock me. He called me 'Spoon' to suggest that I was stupid."

That’s just odd, Lana thought. "You have been wronged, it seems. Not within the strict letter of Thyatian law, but from a moral perspective certainly. But... to commit theft as if you considered yourself justified by another person's transgressions... I say that you overstepped the mark. The cost of the items in that bag runs to tens of thousands of lucins."

"For the cruelty inflicted upon me," the youth muttered, "I deserve the chance to start my life over."

"You do not require ill-gotten gains to do that."

"That's easy for you to say," the slave muttered. "You have it easy here, clearly. A home to call your own, the respect of others. You've made it."

Lana thought silently for a while. "Have you eaten?"

The youth looked at her suspiciously before shaking his head. "Not since two days ago."

Lana rose and gestured for the youth to do likewise, which he did. "Let's get something to eat. First of all however..." She lifted the makeshift scarf from around the youth's neck.

"What are you doing?"

"Relax and hold still."

She focused on the metal collar and snapped the fingers of both hands at once. After a moment's hesitation the collar fell apart along its edges. Lana caught both parts in her hands. The youth's hands went immediately to his exposed neck. He seemed to revel in being set free. "Thank you!" he said earnestly.

Lana was turning over the halves of the collar in her hands. When she placed them back together, to her surprise they formed a complete whole again.

"As if an iron collar weren't solid enough," she breathed in disbelief, "he Wizard Locked it for good measure?"

"I knew there was an enchantment upon it, yes. I am unaware what other magic it might bear."

Lana frowned, dubious about having brought such an object into her home. "Let's go eat."

They descended to the kitchen on the ground floor of the tower. Lana instructed the youth to seat himself on a stool; she poured him a beaker of milk which he downed in an instant. She smiled, refilling the beaker before busying herself attending to more substantial fare.

"We haven't introduced ourselves," she said as she rolled out some pastry. "I am Lana."

"I am Apollinus."

"Tell me of your master."

"He is the wizard Suetonius," the slave replied. "Or as he prefers to be addressed, 'Suetonius the Mighty, Most Resplendent and Powerful among Wizards'." He frowned, downing another mouthful of milk. His stomach growled audibly. "Not that he has many friends among wizards, or chooses to associate with many. He's a loner, really. Eccentric, would be one way of putting it." His stomach rumbled all the more noisily. "That smells good."

Lana had pre-cooked her pie filling and was finishing the pastry. "Thanks. Do you want something to eat while you're waiting?"

"If it isn't too much trouble."

Lana placed a small loaf and half a wheel of cheese before the lad. He tore into both hungrily. "I can't say I've ever heard of this Suetonius... where is he based?"

"He built a tower several years ago. In Machetos."

"Is that where you escaped from?"

"Yes. My master's tower is not far from the Dymrak. I fled into the forest during an opportune moment. My absence was noted after not very long, my master bid Pallidus pursue me which he did without rest. He is a skilled tracker and followed me. I made it across the river which divides your country from mine, Pallidus pursued me all the while and located my tracks after I reached the shore."

"You are lucky to have escaped harm," Lana said. "As for Pallidus..." she trailed off. "I am still deciding what should happen to him."

The youth's eyes gleamed. "What do you think you will decide to do?"

"I do not know yet," she replied, keen to change the subject. "What were your plans for the items you stole?" She pricked the pastry topping before sliding the pie into her oven. It had recently been installed by the Glantrian elemengineer and she was still getting the hang of operating the device which was temperamental to say the least. She prayed her pie would not emerge blackened and smoking.

"I had thought to sell them," Apollonius replied, "at the market in Specularum if I made it that far. My master has many enchanted items, many of his own creation. I thought he would not miss them. There were more powerful items I could have stolen. His magical staff for one."

"Theft is still theft," Lana said disapprovingly.

"I know. I had no other choice."

"There's always a choice," Lana said. "Though I sympathise with the position you were in." She seated herself opposite Apollonius. "The question remains. What should I do with you?"

The youth paused midway through chewing a mouthful of bread. He seemed to shrink into himself in the moments that followed. "What will you do with me?" he asked fearfully.

"That's what I'm considering."

A light appeared within Apollonius' eyes. "I could work for you, mistress! I am smart and dutiful and have a good eye for detail, I work hard in whatever endeavour is assigned to me. I can read and write, I am familiar with the workings of a laboratory, I can maintain your supplies and your components, care for your books..."

Lana raised an eyebrow. "Would you steal from me, also?"

"Not if you treated me fairly." The youth's words seemed to have a ring of sincerity to them.

"It would be risky for you to remain here. For you, and me, and my villagers. Your master has sent a single agent thus far. More could come. Not just bounty hunters..." she pictured horrible images in her mind, "he could summon stalkers from other planes of existence..."

"He has not the spell to do so, mistress," Apollonius answered immediately, sounding sure of himself, "though he desires it greatly."

"There are other means by which he could attempt to get you back," Lana replied. "Or punish those who gave you shelter."

The lad looked at her miserably. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying..." Lana sighed, reluctant to commit to any particular decision just yet. "That I'm going to have to give this a great deal of thought."

Her nose crinkled. She could smell smoke coming from the oven.

"Does any of this look familiar to you?"

The pig's expression suggested that no, none of it did.

Green and pleasant scenery passed by. A mile behind her the door to her tower had been securely locked and Wizard Locked. Beside her on the carpet, in addition to the pig, sat the collar which until yesterday had hung around Apollinus' neck. Enchanted to remain in place, Lana eyed the collar with suspicion as she wondered what other magics might be imbued within it.

Apollinus had been handed to the villagers to look to his recovery but more importantly to keep a close eye on him. He would reside at the inn until Lana returned from Machetos.

"Don't even think about it," she warned.

The pig had turned its head and was gazing over the side of the carpet, as the ground below whizzed past. It seemed to be deciding whether to make a break for freedom.

"I could have given you to Agatha, you know. She gives most butchers a run for their money. She'd carve you into chops in no time." Her threatening tone lessened. "But then you're not actually pig, are you..."

She tightened her hold on the rope, the end of which was lasso-ed around the pig's neck. It made a low oinking sound, clearly unaccustomed to aerial transport, but remained where it was.

"And just you keep it that way," Lana said. She closed her eyes, letting the late summer breeze fill her hair and cool her skin. To the north was the deep green of the Dymrak Forest, foreboding and mysterious. To the south lay the ocean, a sparkling expanse of sapphire and emerald. Ahead lay her destination.

"This brings back memories," Lana informed her porcine passenger. "Just months ago, Teldon and Karnus and I crossed several of the Alphatian kingdoms in this very manner." She reflected. "That seems like long ago. Much has happened since then."

According to Apollinus his master's tower lay just a short way into the Duchy of Machetos, around twenty miles beyond Blackspire Citadel and to the north. "Seek out the fork in the road," had been all the directions he thought she would need to find the place.

By lunchtime the carpet cleared the Rugalov River and was sailing toward the newly fortified Keep. Lana had visited several times in recent weeks, accompanying the Alphatian specialists who had conjured permanent, substantial defences within an astonishingly short space of time. By now she was a familiar figure to the troops stationed there; her carpet made her especially recognisable from afar. Thus none of the rooftop ballista or catapults of Rugalov Keep took aim at her carpet, and she sailed by unhindered but for a few waves from those stationed below.

Along the road ahead, an equally friendly welcome could not be expected. News of Karameikos' treaty with Alphatia had become widespread just weeks before, and those in the know about such things would know how Karameikos’ emissaries to Sundsvall had travelled on a flying carpet. Lana thought it wise to give Blackspire Citadel a wide berth, and directed her carpet away from the main route and to the north-east.

Machetos, she knew, was the Duchy which had belonged to Stefan Karameikos until he brokered a deal with Thincol Torion for the wilderness of Traladara to the west. Pretty much anything of worth had been stripped from the Duchy and transported to the capital, leaving Machetos little more than a verdant corridor into the mainland Empire which lay beyond and to the east.

The carpet sailed over pastureland which was not dissimilar to the meadows of Vertiloch, reminding Lana even more of her trip to Alphatia. Several miles past Blackspire Citadel her carpet intersected a trail running due north. She decided to follow this. By mid-afternoon she spied a figure on the trail ahead. From afar, it looked to be a single person sitting on a wooden stool. Behind the stool was a crossroads sign, though no other routes branched off from the trail. As Lana approached the lone figure noticed her, hopped onto the stool and placed some form of headdress atop its head. As Lana closed she could see that the person was a young girl. A metal collar was in place around her neck.

"Greetings traveller!" the girl said loudly. She had mousy brown hair which was choppily cut and just long enough to poke out from beneath the headdress she wore. She eyed Lana's carpet in wonderment, though the importance of giving a greeting seemed to weigh upon her. She cleared her throat. "Know that you enter the domain of Suetonius the Magnificent, most resplendent among practitioners of the Wizarding Arts."

"That is excellent," Lana answered, "for it is Suetonius whom I seek. I take it he is your master?"

"Indeed mistress." She nodded tentatively, so that her headdress wouldn't fall off.

"What is that meant to be?"

The girl's eyes rolled up. "What, this?" She pointed to above her head.

"Yes," Lana screwed up her face. "It is a crown? Or some sort of trident perhaps?"

"No mistress, it's meant to be a fork."

"A fork?"

The girl gave another careful nod.

"It looks heavy," Lana said, her voice filled with concern.

"It is."

"Funny you should mention," Lana said, "I was instructed to locate a fork in the road, I was told it would lead me to Suetonius."

"I'm happy to do that," the girl replied cheerfully. "Keep heading up the path, a mile or so. You can't miss the villa."

Lana was entirely bemused. "But that sign behind you..." She stepped close to inspect the markings it bore. They were all nonsensical destinations. Neither Here Nor There, was one. Someplace else, was another while another read, Doom, certain Doom! in bold red ink. The Forsaken Road and The Unforsaken Road both pointed in the same direction, which looked as unremarkable as any other. None of the signs had any corresponding path to follow. The trail which Lana had been following continued past the sign.

Lana wasn't certain she 'got' the humour of whoever had erected the sign. "Would you like to come with me?" she offered the girl. "There's room aboard my carpet for three, and it'll be dark soon."

Fork cast the pig a wary look. "No thank you mistress, I must remain here until sunset."

"Is it safe to do so?" Lana asked. The girl was in an exposed location not far from the fringes of the Dymrak. Lana knew all too well that goblins or wolves could appear at any time.

"My master bids me remain here," the girl replied, "and so I must."

"Very well," Lana said warily. "Farewell then."

"Farewell."

A mile ahead on the trail a cluster of buildings came into view - a red-roofed villa surrounded by outbuildings. To one side stood an orchard of fruit-bearing trees and beside that was a trellised vineyard. The villa was single-storey save for an annexed structure at its front which was around four levels tall. This, Lana thought, could only be the tower of Suetonius. The complex was surrounded by a plain wooden fence. Lana set the carpet down at what she considered a cautious distance.

"Come along, pig." After stowing the carpet within her bag of holding, Lana tugged on the end of the rope and the pig decided to follow. It ambled alongside her in the direction of the tower. The tower was around forty feet broad and deep by fifty feet tall.

At around a hundred yards from the tower, she paused to consider whether she should turn up on the wizard's doorstep accompanied by a pig, of all creatures. First impressions counted, she realised, and she wished to be taken seriously. She approached a nearby tree with low branches and secured the end of the rope around one of them.

"Stay here," she commanded, "and don't get into any trouble."

The pig nosed in the grass before oinking in response.

Lana turned from where she had tethered the pig. Stones had been laid to create a cobbled pathway of sorts, leading from where she stood to the front door of the tower. A young girl was on her hands and knees on the path, a broad wicker basket by her side. She was using a knife, its blade extremely blunt, to extract weeds from between the cobblestones.

"Good day," Lana greeted her, though the girl's back was turned.

"Mistress, day good." The girl turned and curtseyed. She was wearing a simple smock, bound at the waist with a length of rope, and an iron collar was around her neck. It seemed unnecessarily weighty to be hanging about the neck of one so young.

Lana's brow furrowed slightly. "I seek the wizard Suetonius. I presume this is his tower?"

The girl nodded. "Mistress, home his indeed is this."

Lana found this response bizarre. "Is he at home?"

"Is he yes, moment this at. Care take, tower the to proceed you if." The girl's mouth shut itself suddenly. It seemed she was unable to say anything more.

"Why... are you speaking in that odd manner?"

"The wizard Suetonius is great and powerful, all bow before him."

"Hmm." Lana was perplexed. "You managed to say that without difficulty."

"Mistress, correct is that."

"What if I were to ask whether you enjoy your life here? And whether Suetonius is a kind and fair master?"

The girl clearly had an opinion on both matters, her expression conveyed that much. Yet when she opened her mouth...

"The wizard Suetonius is great and powerful, all bow before him." For the time it took to utter the words, the girl's mouth had a mind of its own. When she fell silent she looked as though she thought she had betrayed herself.

"You poor thing," Lana said softly. "He has hexed you, hasn’t he?"

The girl nodded miserably. "The wizard Suetonius is great and powerful, all bow before him."

"You're compelled to say that rather than anything negative about your master." It was a statement rather than a question.

"Manner normal a in say can I thing only the it's." The girl gave Lana a helpless look then went back to pulling weeds, stabbing inbetween the cobbles with her blade.

Lana resumed her advance toward the tower and reached the front door. There was a heavy silver doorknocker which she presumed was the means of announcing her presence. Intending to rap the knocker against the door, she reached for it and took hold -

"YEEOUCH!!" Lana convulsed as an electric current coursed through her body. The arm with which she had grasped the knocker went limp and flopped lifelessly at her side. She backed away from the door cursing and rubbed her injured arm. Sensation returned slowly though she was left fuming. To add insult to injury, cackling could be heard inside the tower. She returned to the doorstep, formed her hand into a fist and pounded upon the wooden surface. She waited a long moment before knocking a second time. Minutes passed and nobody came. Rather than risk further injury opening the door with her bare hand, she gestured with her ringed hand and the doorhandle turned. The door was not locked. Feeling apprehensive, Lana took a moment to cast a protective charm about herself then ventured into the tower.

"Hello?" she called.

"You have entered without permission," a voice screeched.

"I've literally only stepped across the threshold," Lana stated calmly. "I knocked and there was no response."

"There's nobody home. This is an enchanted recording. Leave now."

Lana cocked an ear. The voice sounded as though it was emanating from within a vase of flowers by a nearby fireplace.

"I seek the wizard Suetonius. I was informed that he is at home."

"Who told you that?"

"The slavegirl pulling weeds."

"She's a liar and a cheat, that girl. Don't believe a word she says. Or tries to say," the voice chuckled at its own mirth. "Suetonius is..." the voice took a moment to think. "Indisposed... no, he's Teleported away. He's in Hattias." It seemed to have a better idea. "No, wait, he's... on the Astral Plane! That's it. After all, he is a great and powerful wizard."

"For an enchanted recording," Lana said, leaning against the inside of the doorway, "you possess remarkable sentience."

"Such is the power of the wizard Suetonius," the voice replied solemnly.

Lana fought back a smile. "I have travelled for a full day to get here. Is there no means of recalling the great wizard? I would speak with him."

"Would you now." The voice went silent. "Why should this interest him? The time of one as powerful as he is precious, you know."

"I too am a powerful spellcaster," Lana informed the voice. "Kindly inform Suetonius that I am here in relation to two individuals by the names of Apollinus and Pallidus."

"What about them?" the voice demanded.

"They are what I am here to discuss," Lana stated coolly.

"Very well," the voice replied after a while. "A message will be sent. Suetonius will be asked to return once he completes his discourse with the creatures of the Ether."

"I thought he had gone to the Astral Plane?"

"What? Oh. Yes... the creatures of the Astral Plane, that's what I meant to say." The voice cleared its throat noisily. "Anyhow you may progress to the next level and take a seat while you wait. Don't touch anything."

Lana stepped into the entrance hall which was cool and dimly lit, the only sources of light being the open doorway and a glowing orb atop a table in one corner. She made her way to the stairwell and ascended to the next level, which was a plainly decorated sitting area with straight-backed wooden chairs along one wall. She picked one and seated herself. There were shelves of books on one wall though she recalled the instruction not to touch anything, and did as she had been bid.

Minutes passed. Lana waited patiently. There was little besides books in the room to provide distraction - the floor was plainly tiled and the walls which did not bear books were unadorned. There were several arrowslit windows however these were all too narrow to see through from Lana's seated position.

The hairs on the back of her neck caused her to become aware of a presence on the upper stairwell; although they did not wish it to be apparent, somebody was creeping down the stairs from the level above. They paused and murmured low words. A single moccasined foot appeared within the shadows at the top of the stairs, then an eye and a finger. Unmistakeably, the finger pointed in Lana's direction.

She bid herself remain still as a wave of magic washed across her. It took no effect; the aura of nullifying magic which she had put in place prior to entering kept her safe. She had no doubt that whatever spell had been directed at her, she was better off not having succumbed to its effect. The foot withdrew from the top of the stairs. Then she heard a throat being cleared loudly. Moments later a man appeared at the top of the steps. He descended regally, his head held high. The robes he wore resembled a white toga, trimmed with purple and gold along his hem and sleeves. Numerous gold rings adorned his fingers, while an elaborate medallion hung around his neck. His bushy white hair and beard gave the impression that he was quite old.

He descended to the bottom of the stairs then fixed Lana with a look. He placed the palms of his hands together in front of his considerable paunch.

"You seek audience with Suetonius," he stated. "I am he."

"Well met," Lana rose and nodded her head. "I am Lana Budanter, from the village of Glaston in Karameikos. We have not had the pleasure of meeting one another before now."

"No indeed," the wizard confirmed. "You have not."

"We are neighbours, after a fashion," Lana informed him. "My own tower stands not far beyond the Karameikan border. It took me less than a day of travel to get here."

The old wizard scrutinised her as she spoke. It seemed he was trying to determine whether she had been affected by whatever spell he had cast at her. "That is... good to know, I am sure. What brings you here?"

Hearing him speak, Lana realised that Suetonius' voice closely matched the ‘enchanted recording’ with which she had conversed in the entrance hall.

"I rule a fief to the west," she explained. "My land was troubled recently by two outsiders, who I understand are your associates. Their names are Apollinus and Pallidus."

The wizard nodded. "They are both my subjects."

"They committed grave crimes within my dominion," Lana stated in a manner-of-fact tone. "They breached the peace, damaged property and endangered the lives of my villagers."

"Why would you concern yourself with villagers?"

The wizard’s nonchalance startled Lana. "I am their protector and must look to their safety."

"What nonsense," Suetonius said. "Why should you, a wizardess, waste your time preoccupying yourself with such mundane concerns! What of the Arcane Arts? The mysteries of the Spheres and Planes? Yours is not the proper way of things!" He stared at her as if she were insane.

Lana was mildly pained. Whilst she had been honoured to accept King Stefan's offer of title to the lands of Glaston, she pictured herself living a life of abandon, partaking in the delights of Sundsvall without the shackles of responsibility and fiefdom weighing upon her...

"It is how matters are at present. I am able to pursue my studies while looking to the safety of my villagers." The conversation was not following the course she wished it to. "But we digress. I am here about the crimes which your subjects committed."

"You wish to hold me responsible for the actions of the individuals you named." Suetonius threw his hands in the air. "They were outside Thyatian soil, I will not answer for whatever crimes may have occurred."

"You are the slave's owner,” Lana retorted, “and the henchman was paid to follow your orders. I consider that sufficient connection to render you responsible for both of their actions."

"The slave is a worthless wretch!" Suetonius said loudly. He clenched his hands into fists. "He had the audacity to run away, and to steal many of my cherished belongings before doing so."

"Indeed. This is where I have happy news to report," Lana said. The wizard's snowy eyebrows rose as she handed him the sack she had brought from Glaston. "Your possessions, returned to you."

Suetonius peered into the sack suspiciously but gasped in relief upon realising what it contained. "These... but..." His cheerfulness lessened as he gave Lana a suspicious look. "Not all the contents are accounted for."

"If you are insinuating," Lana drew herself to her full height, "that I have retained any of the items hen you are mistaken. The slave quaffed a potion to evade capture by your henchman. I do not know what else he might have disposed of en route from Thyatis..." she fixed the man with a hard gaze, "but I am sure most of the items can be accounted for."

The wizard digested this, and seemed satisfied. "Very well. You have done me a kindness in returning the items to me, and I thank you for it."

"There is more," Lana replied. "Your henchman is outside."

"Outside?"

"Yes," Lana replied. "Tethered to a tree at the end of your pathway."

Suetonius didn't know what to make of this. "Tethered?"

"Yes. He is in the form of a pig."

"A pig...?"

Lana nodded. "I transformed him as punishment for threatening my villagers."

This statement seemed to earn Suetonius' approval. He nodded. "Yet he will have no memory of this ‘punishment.’ Would you not have restored him to his natural form, before returning him to my tower?"

Lana looked awkward. "Alas, I do not possess the capability."

This amused Suetonius greatly. "You... you have mastered the magic of altering the forms of others... yet you cannot unpick your own enchantments?"

Lana drew a steadying breath. "That is correct."

Suetonius sniggered. "How comical!" He walked around the room chortling to himself. "To be powerful and yet so limited," he shook his head. "Such a thing comes close to unthinkable."

"If you must know," Lana said loudly, "I have managed fine these past years without the enchantment to which you refer. Though truth be told..." memories beset her, "I had access to dispelling magic until recently through an item, a staff, which I lost."

"That was careless of you," Suetonius mused, with a hint of mirth.

"It was not my property," Lana replied, "and was taken from me by one far more powerful than I."

"Unfortunate, unfortunate." Suetonius continued stalking around the room. He appeared to be mulling something over. He reached a decision and stopped in front of Lana. He reached into the sack and brought out several scrolls, which he began to unfurl one by one.

"You did me a kindness," the wizard said in a tone which passed for genuinely grateful, "in returning my goods and for that I should return the favour." He inspected one scroll, which appeared to contain numerous incantations, before setting it aside. "Perhaps it is time for your limitation to be lifted." He seemed to locate what he was seeking - a scroll containing a single incantation. He handed it to Lana, who was unsure what to make of the man's offer.

"I don't..."

"Just take it," he said snappily, "before I change my mind. I do that you know. Change my mind from time to time." He waggled the scroll in Lana's face.

"Thank you." She took hold of the scroll and pushed it into a pocket. Suetonius began arranging his remaining belongings on the desk beside him.

"There is one other matter," the wizard spoke aloud as he did so. "Apollinus. What has become of him? Drowned in the Rugalov River, or is that too much to hope? Devoured by the wolves of the Dymrak perhaps?"

"No, he lives." Suetonius' expression soured. "He is... detained within my village. I am considering what punishment to mete out to him, in view of the crimes I mentioned."

Suetonius turned and looked at her. "Punishment you say...? What do you have in mind?"

"I have not decided," Lana informed him. "There are various possibilities..."

"Thumbscrews," her host muttered, "remove his thumbs, he's a clumsy oaf already and can't get much worse. Or his tongue, so that less cheek will spew from that impudent mouth." He seemed to savour each image as he dwelled upon them. "Or a curse - warts and boils, shivers and shakes..."

"As I said," Lana cut in, "I'm deciding. Which leads me to ask - what price for the boy's freedom?" She brought forth the collar which, until just yesterday, Apollinus had worn around his neck.

The wizard ceased what he was doing and turned to face Lana. His gaze passed from the collar to the pocket where he had seen Lana stow the gifted scroll, just moments before. "Why do you ask me that?"

"So that I am free to inflict his punishment," Lana answered.

"You may inflict whatever punishment you deem proper, with my blessing."

Lana shook her head. "The laws of our countries diverge on the matter of slavery. Your consent alone will not serve. I propose that I buy him from you outright, so that I am free to do with him as I wish. After his punishment is inflicted, I may make him an indentured servant, one to do the bidding of the villagers who I am sworn to protect." She hoped she sounded convincing.

Suetonius seemed won over by this. "I see. The boy was acquired through normal means, Pallidus purchased him at auction in Kerendas. For no more than a dozen lucins, if I recall. But if he is to be released from his servitude to me, there will be the expense and inconvenience of going without a servant for a while, sourcing a new one, training them, lessening the incompetence which is so inbuilt within slaves nowadays..."

"I have no coins with me. However I have this." Lana reached into her pocket and produced a phial of coloured liquid. "What say you to it as compensation?"

The wizard grabbed the vial from her, removed its stopper and ran his tongue along the exposed glass. He closed his eyes as the philter imparted its nature to him. His eyes opened and he fixed Lana with a look.

"The appeal of magical goods cannot be denied..." he mused. "Yet a potion contains but a fleeting, short-lived enchantment. What can you offer to sweeten the deal?"

Lana stared at him in disbelief. "I extend the hand of friendship." She fixed the man with a steely look. "Notwithstanding your earlier attempt to enthral me."

Suetonius was not sure how to react to this. The pair locked gazes for a long while. Then -

"Your offer is sufficient," he announced, sounding hot under the collar as he pocketed the potion. "Wizards can be useful to one another, I appreciate. For consultation and collaboration, discussions of advanced theory and all that... The boy is yours to do with as you wish."

"Excellent." Lana set the iron collar on the desk, beside Suetonius' other possessions. "I am glad we have an understanding. My business is concluded and I will take up no more of your time. Perhaps our paths will cross again soon, Suetonius."

"Perhaps they will. One thing however. Make sure you impose a heavy punishment upon the boy, won't you. Flogging is too good for the likes of him, make it something far worse."

Without further ado, Lana dispelled the protective aura which surrounded her. In the moment that followed she felt exposed and feared that the fickle, ageing wizard might turn upon her. Yet he did not. She murmured words of magic and brought her hands together. Suetonius' waiting room disappeared to be replaced with familiar surroundings… the village square of Glaston.

She entered the inn and looked around the barroom. Apollinus was sitting at a table on his own; several of the inn's patrons were at the bar just a few feet away, watching over the youth. He looked up as Lana entered, his expression a mixture of fear and hope.

"Milady," he rose to his feet, "you have returned."

Lana seated herself across from the lad. "Indeed I have."

"Did you meet with Suetonius?"

"Yes," she stated. "He’s an odd fellow."

"That's the understatement of the year."

Lana thanked the serving girl as she set drinks upon the table. She raised her glass of wine and sipped slowly. "I spoke with your master. Or I should say, your former master."

Hope lit within Apollinus' eyes. "Milady. Do you mean to say...?"

Lana nodded. "You are free, Apollinus."

The youth looked as though he were fit to burst. Not knowing quite what to do, he grabbed Lana's hand and kissed her fingers.

"How...?"

"That doesn't matter." Lana waved a hand dismissively. "The fact remains that you have your life to live, and you can go where you will. You are young, Apollinus, I would encourage you to put aside your past and -"

"Can I stay with you?” he broke in. “Here in Glaston, at your tower? Will you teach me magic?"

Lana was surprised. "It's not easy, you know. It could take weeks. And there’s no way of telling whether or not you’ll be capable… " She smiled. "But we can try to find out."

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