The smoke from two incense-laden braziers hung heavy in the air, giving the small but comfortable room a warm, pungent atmosphere. The dim light from the braziers, combined with the fire burning in the fireplace on the far wall, filled the room with long, flickering shadows. Dressed only in black silk pants, Hedrack, high priest of the Elemental Temple, reclined in his plush chair, his feet propped upon his writing desk. Conquest, Obedience, and Command lay open in his lap, but he paid little notice to the book. Instead, his attention was turned to the high, ermine-covered bed in the corner where his twin beauties lay.
Mika dozed, sprawled naked on her stomach atop the furs. Her face was hidden by the waves of ebony hair cascading across it. Astelle, sitting cross-legged on the bed next to Mika with one of the furs loosely draped across a shoulder, watched Hedrack. She leaned forward, one arm propped upon her knee, her chin cradled in her hand, and gazed at her master through heavy eyelids. A contented half-smile curved on her lips. Her own dark hair was thrown back, leaving her slender white neck and one delectable shoulder bare.
Hedrack watched Astelle’s drowsy face for a moment, saw her lids flutter once, twice, as she struggled to keep her eyes open. Good, he thought. Always obedient. She would struggle to remain awake, to carry out any command he might choose to issue, knowing failure would be painful. Even with the threat of punishment, though, in her charmed state, either girl would jump to obey for the chance to please her master. Thus, he did not often have to punish.
And they pleased me well tonight, Hedrack thought with an inward smile. Always reward obedience, he reminded himself, re-reading those words on the open page before him. “Sleep,” he told Astelle. She smiled, then slid down the bed and curled up beside Mika, throwing the fur across both of them. In a moment, her breathing matched that of the other girl, slow and steady.
Hedrack turned back to his book, intending to refocus his attention, when a small bell sitting upon his writing desk chimed once. He arose from his chair and threw a silk robe over his shoulders. The black garment bore a symbol of a jawless golden skull on the breast and a horned skull in red on the back. After donning his black silk slippers, Hedrack moved to the door, slipped the lock back, and opened it. He stepped into a large room furnished with a massive table and many chairs, then pulled the door shut behind him and locked it again. The high priest turned to look at the guard standing in this meeting room.
The creature, its two heads rising more than twice Hedrack’s own height, stood straight, watching the man with no small amount of fear in its two pairs of eyes. “M-master,” one of the heads said, while the other called out, “Lord Hedrack!” and the ettin bowed.
“Deus, Ahma,” Hedrack replied, addressing each head separately. “How stands the watch?”
“The watch stands ever ready,” Deus and Ahma replied in unison.
“Very good,” Hedrack said as he turned and made his way out of the room. “No one goes in, no one comes out, as always.”
Behind him, the ettin nodded and saluted, one hand to each forehead.
Hedrack moved into the hallways of his underground headquarters, walking with ease and confidence. Except for the occasional troll standing guard, the temple was quiet this evening. The high priest was in a good mood, and his thoughts strayed back to Mika and Astelle, awaiting him in his bed. As he made his way to the Greater Temple chambers, he found himself craving their embrace. Smiling, his steps quickened.
Hedrack passed through several more chambers and into a great room with many passages fanning out to either side. He made his way past these side halls and up a large set of steps to a dais. There, he passed through a strange, shimmering purple curtain that seemed alive, writhing and undulating as he pushed through it. He emerged in a smaller, private chamber with three altars. A faint pearly glow emanated from a set of descending stairs, and to either side black curtains blocked off small alcoves.
Settling himself between the three altars, Hedrack went to his knees and prayed. It was not long before he felt a presence in his mind, a strong and powerful personality that radiated beautiful, black malice.
“My Lord Iuz,” Hedrack said to the presence inside his head. “I am your Mouth. I pronounce your wishes to the world you will tread beneath your feet. You called, my lord?”
Yes, the god replied, bathing Hedrack in his energy of hatred. My loyal servant. How fares your progress?
Hedrack smiled, for he loved bringing his deity good news. “My lord, things progress better than expected. My commander in the field reports additional troops within the week, and many more soon to follow. He also sends fresh sacrifices.”
Well and good, Iuz said, his grating voice reverberating through the high priest’s mind. We shall soon lay claim to the entire region, and that fat toad Belvor in Chendl will not know what to do when I come at him from both north and south. It will he a war the likes of which he has never seen.
“It will be a glorious day, my Lord Iuz.”
Any progress in finding her?
Hedrack nodded, having fully expected to be asked this question. “Only a little, my lord. The throne I spoke of before? I have discovered that she can feel me, and I her, when I sit upon it. We have begun a tentative communication in this way, and she calls for freedom, though she seems—how shall I say this?—not all there, as though she is in the midst of a deep slumber and only a part of her is aware of me. I have forestalled her, assuring her that you labor to free her. I think it satisfies her, for the moment. As you instructed, I have not sent diggers to search for her hidden chambers yet.”
Excellent, my loyal one, Iuz replied. However; I think it is time to find her and free her.
“My lord? I thought you wished to leave her be. Did you not say that having the promise of her rather than the reality of her would keep the temples faithful to her and obedient to you?”
I did. But I have discovered activities on other fronts, powers that move against us. We no longer have the luxury of keeping her promise of power locked away. It is time we took it out and wielded it.
“Others, terrible one?”
Yes. He has taken notice, and even now sends his servants to meddle. That is all the mustachioed fop in his silly hat will do, for the moment. But now that he takes an active interest, we must be ready for more from him.
“You yourself said that it would be unavoidable to draw his attention, great Iuz. Has he meddled too soon?”
No, but we must not hesitate. Begin the digging. Find her. Awaken her, and also intercept his servants. Destroy them. Send a clear message to any others he might think to send. Make them fear to come this way.
“I hear and obey, my lord. I will catch them and send them into the very planes themselves.”
Good. I want him to lose hope. Go now, and do these things.
“Yes, Lord Iuz.” As quickly as it had come, the presence departed from Hedrack’s mind.
The high priest opened his eyes and stood again, looking around the room. He spotted the descending stairs, the pearly white glow coming from below, and walked down them.
The gentle, pale illumination radiated from a column of light in the center of the room, suffusing the place. The walls of the circular chamber were entirely encrusted with precious stones, arranged to form the image of rich farmland as seen from the battlements of a great structure. Beings from every direction were bowing in homage to the viewer.
Hedrack moved to the center of the chamber and passed into the column of light. Inside, he found himself facing a silvery throne covered with more of the gems. This throne was completely bathed in the milky glow. Moving toward the throne, Hedrack took a deep breath and seated himself.
Instantly, the high priest felt the presence of her mind within his own. It was similar to the manner in which his own master visited him, but in some ways quite different. Where Iuz was aware and penetrating, she seemed sluggish, comatose. Hedrack tried to awaken her, to get her attention. She reacted slowly, as if she were engulfed in a sea of molasses, but she did respond.
You are back, she said, recognizing him from before. That pleased him.
Yes. I seek you. Your whereabouts. The Lord Iuz and I come to free you.
I am here. In this place.
But you must help me. You must remember how you got there.
It is difficult. I see… men coming. My beloved tells me to run. I flee… where? I can’t remember. But there is something… golden… a key? Yes! A key! You must find the key!
A key? What key? What is this key? What does it do?
It will free me. You must find it!
Yes, I will. But where? Where is the key, and where is the lock?
A golden… it… is… key.
The contact with her shattered. She was too drained to continue with the struggle to remember, to stay conscious. Pursing his lips in a slight frown, Hedrack stood and left the column of light.
A golden key, Hedrack thought And she remembered me. Perhaps there is progress. He smiled, feeling pleased. As he headed out of the gem-encrusted chamber, he considered whether he should order Barkinar, commander of the temple troops, to begin exploratory digging in an attempt to find her. No, he decided. Soon, but not yet. Still the temples rail against each other. I must force them to accept one another before I free her, then nothing will stand against us. Not this time. In the meantime, I will simply find out about this golden key.
Still smiling, Hedrack returned to his chambers, where his lovely Mika and Astelle lay waiting for him.
Ragged clouds hung low among the easternmost Kron Hills, drifting damply and obscuring the tree-lined ridges like the hoary, tattered wisps of Rao’s beard, as the though the god of peace were passing there. The drizzle-laden sky had deepened into the purple of dusk, and only a steely gray glow in the west still resisted the coming of night. Amid the rain-soaked oak and ipp trees lining the valley between those hills, two horses bearing riders plodded through the endless puddles of a deeply rutted road.
The rear rider, a stout staff of iron-shod wood tied across the saddle in front of him, shivered as rivulets of chill rain seeped through the heavy, oiled cloak he wore, trickling under the edge of his oversized hood and slithering maddeningly down his neck. For the hundredth time, he tugged the hood forward and hunched more tightly into himself, slumping further down into the saddle and trying to hide from the soft rain that had been pummeling him and his companion since midmorning. He sighed, saddle-weary after three days riding through the westernmost part of the Gnarley Forest, and clicked his tongue to his mount, signaling a sense of urgency that his posture belied. The horse snorted once and ignored the command for haste, its hoofs splashing incessantly through the shallow, muddy water.
“Lanithaine, please tell me were going to reach this village tonight,” the rider said to the figure ahead of him. “Tell me we’re almost to this Hommlet.” He shook the rain free of his hood once more.
“Yes, Shanhaevel,” the man in front of him said over his shoulder. “We should reach Hommlet in another hour, at most.” Then Lanithaine laughed. “You know, you’ve always told me elves have the patience to sit and watch a tree grow. You seem awfully eager to be where we’re going. Yesterday, you were complaining that we should never have left the Gnarley.”
“I just need a warm hearth and a dry bed,” Shanhaevel muttered. “Of course, I’d much prefer if it were my bed.”
Lanithaine laughed again, a rich, warm chuckle that glowed with genuine affection. “What? You don’t want to spend another night huddled on the cold ground in the rain?”
“Oh, Boccob!” Shanhaevel snorted. “Don’t be silly. Why be back home, warm and dry, when we can be out here, who knows where, traveling to a wide place in the road that isn’t even on most maps?” He sighed again, thinking of home.
“Hmm, a roof over our heads would do me good,” Lanithaine replied, his voice low and muffled now. “This weather seems to seep into my bones.”
Shanhaevel could hear the weariness in his teacher’s voice. “You still haven’t explained to me why we’re traveling to this place.”
Lanithaine sighed. “Some tales are best left untold, you know.”
Shanhaevel frowned, puzzled by his mentor’s words. “What tale? What are you talking about?”
Lanithaine sighed again. “Something I had fervently hoped I would never have to talk about again, not with anyone….” The older man paused for a moment, as if considering. “There is a wizard in Hommlet, an old friend of mine. Burne and I were very close, once. We survived a war together.”
“A war? What war?”
“You might remember it. It wasn’t so long ago, at least it would not seem so to you, I’d wager. A powerful temple—a walled fortress, really—bad risen. It was a dark and horrific place dedicated to worship of the elements—and to foul demons, too. I left you for a time and told you to watch over the village while I was gone.”
“I remember,” Shanhaevel replied. “I heard the stories that came back with the traders. The army of the temple was soundly defeated, if I recall, and the temple razed. It was only a decade ago. I never realized you were a part of it. You never spoke of it.”
“Yes. Well, it wasn’t something I liked to think about, much less talk to others about. Not even to you. I hope you never have to experience such a thing.
“But I digress,” the older man continued. “Burne and I rode together, serving the marshal of Furyondy himself, Prince Thrommel, who was in command of the army marching to oppose the temple. We were part of a special company, his personal retinue, in a manner of speaking. We had a special and very dangerous job. We were needed to counter the dark magic of the temple leaders and the fiends they served. As awful as it was, it was a glorious time, too.” Lanithaine seemed lost in his memories. His voice was far away, in a younger day. “All the members of that company grew close under the prince. War made us more than just comrades. We became friends. Some of those friends of mine died that day.” His voice grew dark and troubled. “But that’s neither here nor now.”
“But this is more than a social visit, isn’t it?” Shanhaevel said. “You have some other reason for going to see this Burne.”
“Yes. He needs my help with something we didn’t finish during that battle, and it’s time to finish it now. It’s Burne’s tale to tell, though. You’ll see in good time.”
“I hope his tale is worth sleeping on the wet ground,” Shanhaevel grumbled, dissatisfied with his mentor’s abrupt ending to the story.