Throne of Dragons
January 21-23, 2006.

Reviews
Synopsis


"I'm not going to cry for you." — Adrian (SOT1)
"I saw my future, and it doesn't look good for you." — Nimlinor to Neren

Reviews

"SOT 4 was a huge success and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. Justin, you have outdone yourself—four of the best scenes of all time in one story, simply amazing. Kat, I can’t express enough how wonderful your performance of Syra was, and you managed to keep it together through the entire scene while six grown men were crying like babies. My fellow players, to witness the complete mastery you have of your characters is awe-inspiring and completely enjoyable to experience... I know I’m biased, but Vela-Anduin and the gnomes were the highlight of the entire game for me... Long live SOT."
— J.P.
"As soon as I joined this group around our table, Edion returned to my heart in a big way. This was, hands down, my favorite game of the SOT saga, and rivals even my favorite COB session as a whole. The 'Path of Broken Dreams' (aka Remembrance) was an absolutely amazing display of channeled emotions that is, as mentioned by JP, a banner moment in all of COB/SOT. Kat’s performance deserves special praise for not bursting into tears."
— Keith
"The usual self congratulatory pats on the back are not enough to describe the plethora of emotion that I feel after SOT4. The eight people that descended upon JP's clubhouse, like an orcish horde, are by far the only people I would ever wish to play with, each and everyone a true master of the art form. What we do, when together, goes beyond mere role-playing... it is something else entirely, something wonderful and horrifying in its power to absorb our psyches for a weekend. The Path of Remembrance [scenes] were by far my most favorite scenes in the entire campaign... Stellar performances from one and all. Who cannot relate to Neren's lost love, Mabul's desire to know his purpose, Yngvarr's need for paternal approval, Narntay's loss of a dear friend and even Nimlinor's struggle?—logical and indeterminate, classic Nimlinor."
— Larry
"From the minis I had done for you and the stories you had told me, I got a hint as to how complex your campaign was, but I was TOTALLY unprepared for anything like this. It is Absolutely Incredible! Anything that distracts you (other than your profession, of course) from continuing this story should be jettisoned... I can hardly wait for the next installment."
— Alan

Synopsis

Part One Part Two Part Three
1. Malstryx Returns 7. Lost City 13. Sapphire Bay
2. Across the Dune Sea 8. The Idle Throne 14. Lion
3. The Jungle Coast 9. Straits of the World 15. Ole' Zandor
4. Tracking Inland 10. Warmwater Bay 16. Mansions of Aldoril
5. The Orcs Arrive 11. The Beaked Dragon 17. Path of Remembrance
6. Wood Elves 12. The Hospitality of Gnomes 18. Throne of Dragons
19. Leaving Istalion

Part One

1. Malstryx Returns

It is the fifth day of Paleswelt, last of the months of summer. Hardened by their experiences in the desert, the Fellowship of Atân now enters a more dreadful terrain: the seething plains of the Admeron delta, hundreds of miles of hardened black rock furrowed by lava, pouring and oozing to find the sea. Tracking south along the coast, the Bottled City moves closer with each step to the Beaked Dragon, and beyond to Mt. Istalion, where Men have never walked.

Narntay wields the natatolabe, the elven globe that points the way to the Node of Life. The road before him is strange, arousing much fear and alarm, but it is Geyon's path and he goes with confidence. Somewhere distantly, the Abnoctim Spellpool is capacitated. Nim and Neren draw new strength from the mystical connection uniting all wizards, their shardstones glowing with vitalizing power.

Ahead of the travelers, the black lava-stone is gnarled into numberless low ridges and strange masses. Dry, scanty grasses grow in small patches, and a few brambles have taken root in the fissured rock, but mostly the terrain is devastated. Some of the lava flows are languid, crusted over and stagnant, hard enough for a man to tread upon. Others are slick, unstable, falling away unexpectedly and triggering new explosions in the volatile earth.

Amid the black ridges, threads of pale smoke ascend, serpentining oddly in the still air and reaching unbelievable heights. The leprous gases are shot through with scalding rain and white-hot embers. Black ash falls upon the ground, and the odors of the underworld make the eyes weep and throat burn, fouling all food and water. Underfoot, lava channels course through shifting tunnels. At any moment they can migrate into subsurface voids and explode, releasing volatile gases. Where the lava enters the ocean, the ocean boils violently and causes explosive showers of molten spatter to fall over large areas. Little islands of sulfurous foam drift back on the surf, settling in eerie stillness upon the black beaches.

Through this nightmare realm, they are pursued by the dragon Malstryx. She has yet to reveal herself, choosing a prolonged torment instead. Occsionally, one catches scent of her foul breath; or distinguishes the polished glint of her scales, azure blue, like the sky before dusk; or witnesses the tip of her nose prodding through the gasses, never revealing her horny face. Mazed and wildered by the smoke, the lava, and the sea’s buffeting, the companions go onward. Some say the dragon is driving them into a trap, others say she is only a figment of their fears made manifest. Valandil is certain of her imminent return.

The mood is overcast. The Fellowship toiled long in the desert, and the wounds of their struggles—with friends and enemies alike—are still fresh. Yngvarr recites the verses of the Trials of Jagildir to himself as he shuffles from spot to spot. Valandil is ever alert, scanning the broken terrain, the curtains of smoke, the bleary sky, everywhere for Malstryx. When the dragon finally emerges, his blades are ready.

The smoke is furrowed by a streak of blue, parting in response to a tremendous bulk now thrusting its mass through the divide. Crashing down is Malstryx, lifting her immense wings and fanning the fumes. Her cry of vengeance is an insupportable thunder that wounds the heart, and shakes the earth. The air darkens around her, and the ground gives way beneath her. Great cracks appear in the earth, and a chasm deepens swiftly and then widens, spilling lava. She totters and falls down into the blazing rent, flailing her horns and crying in rage.

In the lurid glare of the volcanic fumes, they behold her face. Her piercing yellow eyes narrow on Valandil as she hoists her body from the lava. The membranes of her wings are alight, billowing smoke and fleshy cinders. "Sing your death song, Valandil, and die like a hero going home," curses Malstryx, "or die on your knees. I don’t care! Your death will heal my heart, for a little while."

"End it, wyrm," says Valandil in answer, adopting a warrior's stance, both blades in hand. The full spectacle of Malstryx revealed prompts the others to activate their many protections from lightning and fire and fear. Neren wastes no time, leveling Breath Breaker (his newly renamed paralytic pistol) at the dragon and firing. The shot goes wide and Dram reloads. The dragon comes down atop the company, stamping them with her tail. She takes Valandil in her hand and hurls him toward the pool of lava behind her. The elf lands perilously close to the incinerating heat and rolls to safety. “There a piteous end for you, Valandil, that few will forget when ere it’s told!”

Narntay calls upon the binding winds of Ozian. A flurry of ashen birds whips around Malstryx, dragging her down. But the dragon is too powerful, too determined. Shrugging the spell off, she spins around, but Mabul is there with a blow of his domineering poleaxe. Despite all her rage, Malstryx is chilled with the fear of its blade. She leaps to the air, and the ground beneath her feet caves in. Narrow cracks open swiftly and spread apart. Neren stumbles away, while Yngvarr and Mabul find themselves on an island amid torrents of lava. Nimlinor continues a long process of warding himself, with no real intent to join the fight.

Maltryx lands atop Valandil, who is still prone and scrambling from the lava. “Flee! Beneath a rock! Beneath a city! I will find you!” cries the wild, booming voice. A storm of electical power dances over the dragon's face, coiling upon her horns; her eyes go white. With a crack, she issues a bolt directly at Valandil, but the elf twists away and avoids the attack. When he tries to get away, Malstryx grabs him again. "Fall again, elfling! Curl yourself into a ball and weep! Weep for Malmox!" She tosses him toward the ever-widening lava pool, but Valandil veers safely away and lands behind her. Yngvarr attacks an opening, and Malstryx strikes back in frustration, momentarily confused. Bones are splintered, muscles shredded, and vessels burst, as Yngvarr is jarred mercilessly by the flailing dragon. Valandil seizes the opportunity and cuts his prey, coming away with bloody scales.

Narntay steps atop a little cloud he has created for himself, safely away from the spurting lava. The priest calls on the god Yudratl to curse the dragon, and the god answers. Neren gets a pixie dart out of his pack and enspells his aim. The dart strikes true, but the dragon is immune to its enchantments, no more than a pin-prick in its knobby hide. Valandil continues to battle Malstryx, as the ground convulses beneath the dragon's feet, rippling and falling away behind her like an advancing tide. Often she is dragged down and doused in the lava, but she crawls out a-flame, stamping new holes in the earth. As the battle goes dire, she resembles more some devil out of Carceri than a blue dragon, with drapes of fire and fume beneath her skeletal wings.

Mabul negotiates the convulsed battlefield, joining Yngvarr and Valandil beneath the flaming wyrm. Amid the whir of blades and staves, Malstryx lunges once more at Valandil, taking him bodily into her mouth! Vainly, the elf reaches for a dagger and slashes her gums. But the dragon has no intention of eating Valandil. She pulls her neck back, like a catapult drawn to fire, and springs, heaving Valandil onto the rock with enough force to crack the shale. There is a moment of blackness. The elf cowers in a vacuum of senses, nearly dead, as the dragon overwhelms him. "When your death comes," she appeals, "will your mother grieve for you the way I grieve for Malmox?”

At the last moment, with Malstyrx close upon him and opening her terrific jaws, Valandil lets fly a commotion of magic bolts, piercing the dragon in the heart. Malstryx stumbles back, tottering some yards away. Her body falls upon the blackened earth, torn and tumbled.

"Lo! Malmox, I loved you! Did you love me?”—Malstryx, dying words

Part of the earth caves in with the crash, spilling lava. Then there is a long trailing cry, fading away to low sobbing; and after that… silence. Shapeless she lay. When the earth ceases its long trembling, her face is turned upward to the sky. Her body catches fire and she is swallowed up by the consuming lava. "Death be not kind to dragons," says Valandil softly, quoting the Libris Prodigium Formidonis. "Farewell Malstryx, Daughter of Myndoz, Mmalpoom's Granddaughter."

Mabul helps Valandil to his feet. "Better to stand than run, always."

"I won't be joining my ancestors in the sky tonight," says Valandil.

"Well, the day is not over," says Neren, catching up.

Valandil hoists the Bottled City to his shoulder and renews the trek. The dragon's death offers no respite from the harsh realm they now traverse, so they go on. Neren and Yngvarr wonder about the dual natures of Lóliévar and Simbostalis (the life node and death node, respectively, in the elven tongue), and Neren wonders if Valandil can talk to the nodes. Narntay thinks it's unlikely. "You couldn't talk to the Node of Life any more than you could talk to the Sword of Elai." But Yngvarr relates that the Idreshim could talk to the Furis beast, and reminds him that they spoke freely to the strange man at the council in Shevarash. "Threr," muses Nimlinor, "the Node of Pernoctare."

That unsettles everyone and the topic changes to the Ministers of Azalan and how they are acknowledged. Narntay lectures on the origin myths of the aspirants (those Men who became proxies of the Eäril in the afterlife, now called Ministers), as a man called to serve them, enumerating their earthly merits with the relish of a student. He tells the stories of Matravus (who bankrupted the King of Caldaea), and Shaledaggum (who kidnapped virgins and married them in his well), and Lior (who defeated the giant stag Tannuu with his bare hands), and of course Geyon (who was banished from his house by a cruel uncle and never ceased walking the earth). Like a good teacher, he chooses the stories that have special relevance to his listeners.

Neren gets excited that seemingly anyone could become a god. "These were extraordinary Men called by the Elder Gods to be their agents," explains Narntay, adding, "long ago, when Azalan was young." In such wise, the hours and days go by. So imbued with the fervor of adventure, they push on for days and reach the edge of the lava delta by mid-afternoon on the tenth day of Paleswelt.

2. Across the Dune Sea

The delta gives way to a vast sand sheet.

To the east, mobile sand dunes are arrayed in legions with their backs to the wind; these are the drifting, towering heaps of sand that comprise the Dune Sea. Cyclones of forceful wind and blasting sand sweep over the region. Against the shore, the dune fields are anchored by various cacti, their deep tap roots reaching down to the water table. Strange desert plants provide swathes of color on the fringe of an otherwise dusky panorama.

The beach is a landscape of sand cemented into a fragile crust by the surging tide. Not many plants tolerate this salty environment. The moisture in the ocean captures the wind-blown sand, and the waves then carry the sand back to the shore. Consequently, the shore is dangerous and ever-shifting. Rotting clumps of driftwood are the only distinguishing feature of the coastline.

To the west, the sun stretches over the endless waves of the Eavon Ocean. Plodding across the sand crust, they go southward until the moon comes up. When they are ready to make camp, the company encounters a strange comfort: a small beach villa perched atop a wide rock in the surf. The doors and curtains are drawn invitingly open, offering a glipse of soft candlelight within. Narntay moves purposely toward the structure. Amicus hurries ahead, swimming out, and drinks thirstily from the filled dog bowl. "What is this?" ask the fellows. "It is blessing of Nurtia," says Narntay, entering the surf. "We are travelers upon Geyon's path. We shall rest here. Ah! The food smells delicious. Come inside."

Incredulous, they make camp in the strange house, refreshing themselves on cool water and honeyed bread. That night as they sit on the porch and watch the moon cross the heavens, they talk more about Lóliévar. "I think the 'turtle' is just big," speculates Neren, "and the only word the elves had for something 'big' was 'dragon.' Hence, 'beaked dragon.'" That makes sense to Nimlinor, as the Death Node was called a 'feathered dragon' in the elven tongue, though it resembled a vulture or raven to the human eye. Narntay pours tea for everyone. Dram decides he wants some, but he can't lift the cup poured on his behalf. So Neren modifies a potion vial and administers the tea that way, but the liquid just rolls down Dram's face. The homunculus keeps trying vainly. Nimlinor withdraws himself and writes in his books. There is still tension concerning Mabul and Nimlinor, though Neren assures Mabul that "it's usually better when Nim isn't talking."

"It's usually better when Nim isn't talking."—Neren to Mabul

In the morning, Mabul and Neren swim in the surf, but Dram refuses to join them. Neren gives the construct a bath instead. A full day of travel finds them at the doorstep of another mysterious dwelling, this one thatched with coastal reeds. Amicus certifies that they are invited to rest here, gulping down the water left for him on the porch. Though it is only the second day of this strangeness, the companions settle in happily, and find themselves looking forward to their rest each night thereafter. That night Neren asks Valandil to pose for a drawing. The elf expresses no displeasure, but doesn't seem to care if he's remembered in charcoal, so Neren draws something else.

On the third night they search for Nurtia's house well into the evening. The sun is completely down when they hear a mournful sound like singing: the clear but distant tones of elf maids, rising and falling over the waves. The sounds are beautiful, and eerily familiar, like the singing of Sylmae Fanwë’s Daughter (of the House of Nóran) mingled with the plucking of elven harp.

The song becomes a loudness in their ears, and the rushing darkness of the spell urges them to walk out to sea. Peering over the black waves, they perceive certain objects resembling elven heads that pass in the high-billowing water, maybe a dozen in number. The light of the moon falls on their faces, and their hair is like vast nets of seaweed, mingled with starlight. "Come and join us by the sea," say the elf maids in their most seductive tongue. "The sea is not for our kind," answers Valandil; his words show no yielding, but his body obeys. He takes several footsteps into the surf to seek a better view.

"Too seldom anymore do our kindred journey hither from Elfhome," say the sirens. "There is no great hurry. Come now and join our company." Their faces are very alluring, even to human eyes, like statues of youthful beauty, but none can long endure their glances, save Valandil, who is well accustomed to the scrutiny of elf maids.

Amicus barks interminably at the edge of the surf. The cool coastal air is filled with the fragrance of the sea-elves.

Neren urges Valandil to come back to shore. "There are stories of elf maids who steal travelers' breaths at sea. Don't be fooled, Valandil! The dog is barking!" But Yngvarr is circumspect. "These are Valandil's kin. You cannot deny him." Nim listens intently, with a scholarly interest.

"Come closer, dears," says Valandil, torn between wisdom and desire. "Tell me of your journeys."

"We go to Istalion," say the elves, inviting Valandil to close the final distance between them. "But we are lost. Do you know the way?"

Neren looks to Amicus and questions the creature in dogspeak. "Don't we run from these?" says the dog, nervously, between growls. Neren warn's Valandil—who is now waist-deep in the foam—of the dog's concern, but Valandil rebukes him. "Don't you remember the termite mounds?" says Valandil. "The dog doesn't know everything."

Yngvarr reminds Neren they never confirmed that Sylmae's kin were evil, instead fleeing at the dog's suggestion. But Narntay trusts Amicus and beckons Ozian to grant him mastery over the winds. A blast strengthens from Hibernus, rushing down through Narntay's outstretched hands, fanning outward to sea. The foam is scattered away. Valandil is caught amid the rushing winds, but he stands firm.

The winds blow clouds overhead, obscuring the moon. Darkness falls. Narntay increases the winds and the cloud passes, but the sirens no longer appear. Each is replaced by a horrible apparition flowing in the water, upheld by thick, coiling masses of tentacles. With dull and bulging eyes, they reach out, groping toward Valandil.

"I don’t know any elves who look like that."—Neren to himself

Valandil draws his blades, and steps hesitantly back from the surf. "Show us the way to Istalion!" plead the banshees. "Show us the way to the Mountain!"

"It is not my time, sisters!" shrieks Valandil as they close upon him.

Narntay increases the wind to near hurricane forces. The banshees struggle before the blast, their rotting garments blown away. Beneath the moon, their naked, undulant flesh is a cadaverous blue color, overgrown with thick wiry sheets of seaweed. As the wind increases from Hibernus, they are dissolved into mist and blown out to sea. Moments later the spirits settle behind the waves and rise once again as elven maids. Quivering, suction-cupped tentacles submerge behind them, betraying their true form.

Nimlinor cautions Valandil, "It appears you do not have a kind fate ahead of you if you do not find Istalion." Yngvarr gives Amicus a piece of bread, thanking him for saving them once again, and for not trusting him. "Let's get out of here," says Valandil, turning his back on the doomed elves. "Quickly."

They see Nurtia's homestead waiting for them a safe distance away. "One hundred percent of the time houses appeared for me," says Neren, "I was around pixies or thinking about them." It is not lost on Narntay that pixies are Hibernal fey, that indeed some pixiecraft may be involved in the magically appearing houses of Neren's youth, but not here. These dwellings are made for Geyon's followers when needed.

Valandil meditates on the porch, never entering the hut. His ears are intent upon the distant calls of the banshees. A great dread and sadness is upon his brow. Yngvarr asks Valandil to trust his friends, and take comfort in knowing they are near. "How can I trust in my friends," asks Valandil, disturbed, "when they do not trust each other?" Yngvarr has no answer to that, but finds understanding in his own confrontation with Gola Par. Not put off my Valandil's demeanor, Neren asks again if he can draw him. The elf concedes, "Do whatever you wish, Neren." So he does.

"How can I trust in my friends, when they do not trust each other?"—Valandil

"What would you have done if Syra were in the surf?" asks Mabul of Neren. "I would have tackled them," he replies, setting the drawing down. "But I would have had more doubt." "What do you mean?" Neren turns to face Mabul... "Syra died in Thard-Harr."

The following night, Neren asks Mabul to stand for a portrait. When asked how he'd liked to be remembered, Mabul poses with his weapon across his chest.

In the morning, the company is ambushed as they walk by a pack of huge, segmented insectoid creatures. The bugs emerge quickly from the surf, each one about ten feet long and powerfully built with a heavy carapace. The head is bumpy and conspicuously ridged, unlike any bug familiar to them, and the antennae are long and stout. Yellow and tan markings cover the creatures' brown chitinous shells. Most peculiar are the conversational droning and muttering sounds they make. The effect on the ears is most unpleasant, suggesting in turns the murmurs of fire and water. Amicus barks loudly at the higher frequency sounds that mercifully cannot be heard.

In an attempt to capture and drown their victims, the monsters single out Narntay, surrounding him and latching onto him with sharp claws and powerful mandibles. (This after an initial sortie is cut down by Mabul, who is enlarged by Neren.) While the battle rages on the sand, Nimlinor forks multiple rays of black energy at the beasts, leaving smoldering husks in their place. Narntay calls on Paravardan, Minister of Furis, conjuring a gale of polar air from Kandor. The ritual is effective at herding and harrying the sand beetles, and Yngvarr's heart thrills at the frigidity and smell of the Kandorian air... the scent of his homeland, long unremembered. The last of the giant beetles are dispatched easily. The beach is littered with their carcasses and the thick juices spilled from their wounds. This all washes back to sea with the receding tide, where kneels Yngvarr praying to Elai amid the foam. Afterward, Yngvarr questions Narntay about the Kandorian blast. "How is it you command the wind of my homeland?" To this, Narntay answers, "The wind knows no borders."

"Always from the sea," muses Neren, cleaning his weapon. Narntay helps Yngvarr up and glances back at Neren, adding solemnly, "Praise Yôzar. The sea is the cradle of many horrors, and He is their father. Perhaps we have angered Him unknowning. I will make the proper sacrifices."

3. The Jungle Coast

With the umber of sweltry suns upon their faces, the fellows trek for days. Each night they rest in a little house and share tea by the fireplace. Neren draws Yngvarr (in a stance similar to his portrait of Mabul, with the weapon held across the chest). He finds the occasion to draw Narntay with Amicus, seated on the porch of Nurtia's house with palms upturned in prayer. Nimlinor is captured in his typical thoughtful pose [ed: Neren get's the highest result on his Craft (painting) check, a 28, when painting his brother]. It is a pleasant time of no great worriment, but they share an unspoken astonishment for their circumstances. Valandil, in particular, is full of dread. He does not hear The Call, and it has been only a few days since he came face to face with his banshee kin. The consequence of failure extends beyond his own damnation to the final destruction of Edion. And the Bottled City is heavier upon his back, as if the object captures his own fear incrementally with each footstep, converting anxiety to mass, foreboding to weight.

At length, they reach the end of the sandy beach. In the distance, the shore is disrupted by a fringe of mangrove thickets, sheltering a broad, estuarine mudflat. Coastal creeks meander through grasslands on the landward side of the mangroves, emptying into stagnant pools on the mud bank. Referencing Narntay’s map, they decide that the tree line is the border of M’bol Tan, the Endless Jungle. It is the seventeeth day of Paleswelt.

Nearer at hand, beyond the shoreline is an exotic coral reef where the hulk of a ship decays in the salty water. It appears to be a fairly typical Azalim caravel, though it flies no sails or flags. Neren wants to investigate, but Yngvarr says it's a distraction and wonders if they can make the treeline by sundown. "We need a distraction," says Mabul. Ever the moderator, Narntay deems, "Geyon has put this vessel in our path. Perhaps we can find something useful aboard ship." Argument, and more argument. Nimlinor takes no position, except one of cold detachment. "I don't care," is all he has to say on the matter.

Nurtia's house appears on the shore nearby. "It is settled, we camp." As the companions unpack, Neren sends Dram to reconnoiter the wreck. Dram returns, reporting, "Master! There are dead men, many flies abuzz-, buzz-, buzzing, and writing on the back of the crusty boat." "All the more reason not to go out there, Neren," says Yngvarr. "Funny thing," replies Neren, "I had the exact same thought, except the other way around!"

"Draw what you saw on back of the crusty boat, Dram," asks Neren, handing him a stick. The homunculus can't read, but he can mirror the shapes in the sand:

"Frontier," reads Neren. Dram asks what a 'frontier' is. Neren tells him it is someplace no one has been yet, like the jungle just ahead. Bewildered, Dram sits on the sand. "Oh, and the ship had whiskers," says the homunculus.

"Whiskers, Dram?" Could he mean mold? Rot? Barnacles?

Undaunted, Neren forms a scouting party. Yngvarr retreats into the hut. Nim sits down on the shore, spreading his books in front of him. He'll send Neren a message if there's trouble, and Neren will light a sunrod for the same. Then Narntay creates a billowy cushion of air beneath the feet of Neren, Valandil, Mabul, and himself. The bottle is left with Yngvarr and placed inside the hut, and Amicus is told to guard it.

With billowy strides, they head out to the wreck. Beneath their enspelled feet, they witness an exotic coral lagoon teeming with colorful life. Mabul marvels at the richness of the warm sea beneath him, abounding with firm-fleshed fish, brilliant walls of coral, gaping giant clams, and the scuttling forms of crabs big and small. The former gladiator never knew such colors, such beauty. But there are many hidden dangers lurking below the calm lagoon: blacktip reef sharks, blue-spotted stingrays, dragonfish, poisonous sea snakes, and worse. Ahead they see the barnacle-crusted wreckage of the Frontier, partly foundered on the reef. Now they see Dram's 'whiskers': hundreds of slender arrow shafts embedded in the decking. Reaching the ship and climbing aboard, weapons drawn, they inspect the carnage.

The skeletons of two dozen Azalim colonists rot in the heat, their bodies attended by millions of hysterical flies. These men were slaughtered. They were to establish the colony of Vanya’s Rest near the edge of the jungle. There are supplies (mostly in rotting boxes: shovels, hatchets, rope, etc.), rotting crops, and other gear for such a task.

"Who killed these men?" asks Mabul. "I don't know," replies Neren, pulling a shaft from the deck and inspecting the tip. It is still poisonous. He takes the arrowhead and tells himself he'll study it later. The settlers are desiccated and salt-crusted where they lie above water, rotten and hideous where below. A corrupt smell makes it difficult to tolerate the watery grave.

A quick search reveals the captain's log, detailing the events of their journey from Masolo (Azalan) to here. It mentions nothing of their attackers. Valandil and Mabul head back to the shore. Mabul is upset about Narntay's refusal to bury the bodies or set fire to the ship... something about Yôzar's claim on the dead. But Narntay and Neren stay behind and pray for the slain colonists. When they are finished, they return and report to Nimlinor and Yngvarr what they saw.

"A distraction, then," says Yngvarr. Mabul tries to relate the beauty of the reef, but words fail him. "That was no distraction," he submits.

The company rests. In the morning, scouting reveals that beyond the tree line is a sheltered intertidal area with lagoons, bays, tidal creeks, and inlets. Oysters cling to the stilt-like roots of mangrove trees, and tree crabs, snails, and birds of every color and appearance wend their way through the thich boughs and heavy foliage. Where the Dune Sea was nearly inhospitable to life, the swamp is overflowing with things that crawl and creep. Furthermore, some the giant birds are perceived in the mire, plucking morsels from the slough, more of the same creatures encountered in Viscachün but with yellower quills atop the head.

Narntay chooses a path more inland, avoiding the interidal zones and the carnivorous fish that nurse in the underwater roots. Consulting the natatolabe, Narntay asserts, "This is the more direct route." But he is doubtful. Amicus chose the swamp, so Narntay asks Neren to query the dog. "Ask Narntay," answers the beast. Neren makes some kind of face, expressing, "of course!" But then Amicus tells Neren to decide for himself. Neren chooses the trees, and Amicus points that direction to sell their story to Narntay. The priest pets the dog proudly, and puts staff to ground.

4. Tracking Inland

Moving away from the dangerous mangrove swamps, they track into the jungle's interior along a stream. The trees become vast, dwarfing even the tall trees of the Grey Jungles and the mightiest timbers of Ithiltaen. Narntay moves through the living barrier, but it is slow and painful going.

"Geyon's path?" says Yngvarr, sarcastically, "Where is it?"

"Right in front of us," comes the only answer, a bit frustrated.

As they drudge along, Neren collects plant and bug samples. At one point, Yngvarr thinks he sees hoof prints and Neren deduces that two print-makers once trod the area: a horse-sized quadruped, and some bipeds, both kinds with cloven hooves. Yngvarr takes alarm.

"With any luck, they'll shoot arrows at us soon," says Neren.

"How is that luck?"

"That's called sarcasm."

After a day of trekking in the oppressive wilderness, they rest at another of Geyon's huts, this one made of densely woven reeds. Neren's growing fear of deer-people, or tapir-people, causes him to doubt their course. He suggests that they go back to the swamps, but is overriden. Instead, he occupies himself with drawings of the bugs and leaves he collected. Valandil medidates quietly. Narntay prays, and afterward he theorizes that the arrow-makers from the Frontier may have been Cáladain, a so-called "lost tribe" that he believes may exist. The others doubt him, and Nim in particular cites the lack of historical, mythical, even anecdotal evidence to corroborate Narntay's idea. That some tribe might be lingering out here on the edge of Edion seems to him ludicrous. Even more ludicrous to his brother, since Neren believes that deer-people of some kind or another are clearly responsible for the Frontier's demise.

Something thrashes atop the roof throughout the night, but never succeeds in infiltrating the hut. In the morning, it is confirmed that a creature was present, and did considerable damage to the structure, but was prevented somehow from entering. Prayers to Geyon are invoked, and Ozian is called by name.

"If I catch the bird, I am going to cook the bird!" exclaims Neren, hours later, referring to some avian calling repetitively at steady intervals. He points out that most of their troubles had been the work of females (Malstryx, Dulpae, Thameera, etc.).

"I would not be surprised if Tharthammon was a girl!"—Neren, about females in general

They plunge at random among the mighty fern-trees, parting the enormous leaves with extreme effort. At length, they find the severed head and nick of a bizarre creature, attended by millions of hysterical flies. It has been torn away from the withers, the upper rib bones left dangling from a stub of spine. Amicus starts to lick at the sticky, black eyes. Narntay intervenes, just as a large, bubbling call goes up in the canopy, heralding the arrival of hairless, monkeylike creatures with dull, bulging eyes and mottled flesh. They go from branch to branch, moving quickly with long swings that seem to defy the length of their forearms, and before the fellows can muster a proper defense the mob rains down from above with intentions all too plainly hostile. Groping with tentacle-like appendages in lieu of arms, tipped with spiny cartilaginous pads, they launch themselves onto the ground. They take an undulant ophidian form, their arms flailing madly over their heads for balance. With ever-lengthening tentacles, they snap their arms like whips, aiming for the throat. The creatures succeed in dragging many of the companions away from the group. Nimlinor is carried bodily into the tree heights. Valandil and Yngvarr maintain their footing and dispatch several of the attackers, while Neren spends most of his time escaping their clutches. Narntay chases one off of Amicus. Mabul struggles for his short sword. Then, over the din of battle...

5. The Orcs Arrive

From the nearby jungle comes a sound, startling and horrible above the din of battle: the hoarse battle cries of orcs in multitude. The shadow of death falls dark upon the trees. Leaves wilt and rain down in ragged blight. Stricken by this new terror, the chokers flee the area immediately, scrambling in disarray for the trees.

Here now are the orcs in full numbers, come to seize the Bottled City for Tharthammon. Preceding the orcs are three beasts of a hitherto unknown species: great doglike monsters, combining the worst features of predator and orc. Like monstrous bloodhounds, they seem to follow a scent, and when them come to view Nerenethos, they pause, and begin to growl and cough and wail [pic].

Many dozens of orcs enter the area, beneath the prodding of demonic brutes. The foulest among the brutes is a massive specimen endowed with great physical strength, a leering face, and wielding on high a lash of bone crackling with fell energy. Beneath his feet the trees draw away their roots, and about him is an unnamed horror of filth, of squalor and disease. The decapitated remains of the fallen adorn his raiment, and dangling from his belt is the rotting head of Tvash-Barr, leader of the Red Tooth gnolls, sent to his evident death by Mabul.

It seems the githyanki have become masters of mutations, creators of monsters, artists of horror. Their orcish creations now swarm the globe in search of the Bottled City. And now they have found it. These are evil tidings.

The orcs hail the company with hoarse cries and hollow croakings. The leader speaks in articulate words, albeit of a strange language. But Narntay is the only one to understand their meaning:

"We are the legions of Tharthammon, the Banished One. We are the race undone by elves. The world is ours. The mountains fall, the seas dry out. The moon shall vanish from the sky. No living thing shall ever stir again upon this ground!"

Overwhelmed, as fish in a net, the fellows prepare hastily their defense. Mabul quaffs a healing potion. Neren and Valandil both cast shield on themselves.

"Where is Tharthammon's Prize?" calls the leader. At this, a loathsome cackling and tittering arises among the orcs. "To the blood and the killing!" With obscene cachinnations, the doglike orcs jeer at Neren, eyeing him hungrily. Their slaver indicates a pressing urge to tear him apart and consume the pieces. The doglike orcs are unleashed, attacking ahead of the mob with catlike leaps.

From the canopy, Nimlinor palms a clear cut gem stone, invoking a spell. The gates of Carceri are swung open, and from the hellish earth are summoned swirling masses of greenish spirits, tortured and wailing in agony. The low groaning of the spiritwall frightens the orcs, and many of them flee from the Carcerian barrier. All three of the orc-dog hybrids are likewise scattered in disarray. "Hold your ground, you scum!" bark the minders. Whip lashes crack overhead as the few resilient orcs scramble to circumvent the necromantic wall.

Various potions are consumed at that moment, using the small reprieve affored by Nimlinor's spell. The company regroups behind the wall. "We will defy!" roars Narntay, as the blessedness of Hibernus washes over the heroes. As the first orcs round the edges, Mabul is rendered large by Neren's scroll. Many orcs fall at the feet of the warriors Mabul, Valandil, and Yngvarr. Nimlinor is enspelled by the orc captain, bound in iron bands and helpless, but levitating safely above the battle, out of reach of orc steel. Dozens of orcs fall to Valandil's blade dance. The bodies mount thick and fast, and all around the devastation wrought upon the earth gives rise to black vapors. Narntay opens another portal to Hibernus. Divine rain falls upon the heroes and sears the flesh of the wicked orcs. Now the most brutish of the orcs is upon them with demon-forged blades, hulking over the roaring sea. Mabul and Yngvarr have fought these kind before. "Her name was Calais!" wails Neren in despair, recalling the death of his mother upon the hill.

The situation goes dire. Mabul is lashed by the bone-whip of the orc leader. Narntay is overwhelmed and wounded grievously by the demon blades. A blow that would kill any man sends him to the ground, rending spirit and flesh, but just as he falls, a cool wind blows from Hibernus, and fresh leaves spring from the dead trees. Some discern the briefest glimpse of an old man, kneeling gently beside the fallen Narntay. Miraculaously, his wounds are restored at the moment of injury. Narntay is spared death. But Mabul has no such compact with his gods. Nor do the others. All is nearly lost when suddenly arrow-shafts pierce the fray. Each one finds its target among the few surviving orcs. Yngvarr is now in full rage, himself almost slain, the remains of his tattered robe savaged beyond utility.

Mabul is nearly taken by the orc leader. To the complete astonishment of the heroes, a number of warriors now appear from the woods, garmented in mail of sharp leaves. They are to all appearances a feral species of elf: with pointed ears, wild hair, and war-painted physiques. Yngvarr fears they are banshees. But they are not savages. Their armor and weapons are in good repair, albeit of ancient design. Also appearing is a grizzled centaur warrior, curious in that the centaurs were hitherto believed extinct. Spears are driven at last into the towering orc and it falls with a crash. It seems a thousand seasons of drought have withered the ground beneath it, leaving only a few black and decaying tree stumps.

6. Wood Elves

Valandil ends his blade dance to gaze upon his elven kin. There are no more sounds, save the after-wails of battle and the panting breaths of the humans. Even the leaves are silent. Seated atop a branch on the forest perimeter Valandil sees a female elf garbed in green and gold, but with the hood thrown back. When he sees her, his pulse quickens in his throat. She smiles, her green eyes boring into Valandil's blue ones. She shoulders a bow and leaps down from the height. Valandil tries to say something, but is pre-empted by the elf warrior-maiden. She speaks in a strange voice, of a tongue that Narntay recognizes and understands as Druidic. Valandil cannot understand her, nor can the other speakers of Elvish.

She says, "You need have no fear. We have been aware of you for a long while." Her voice is strong. Sensing only astonishment, she trains her voice in Elvish, though it is a distant dialect, far-removed from the musical speech of Valandil’s kind. "Gwaengail is my name, Daughter of Carathlorn. These are my kin." The elves gather round, somewhat circumspect, bows still notched for battle.

"Milady, there are elves beyond these woods?" asks Valandil, disbelieving.

"Have we been sundered from our kindred in the North so long that they never speak on us?" she asks, eyeing her brethren. In introduction, Valandil gives his name, and the name of his household and grandfather.

"We are the wardens of the Forbidden Wood, Keepers of the Throne," says Gwaengail, "and we do not willingly have dealings with the People of Caladon." The tightening of bowstrings finishes her point.

Narntay does his best to mediate, sensing the gravity of the situation. "The pact has been broken," he says to her. "The orcs are freed from the East."

"Alas for the folly of these days!" cries Gwaengail. "The world is now full of peril, and all chance of the Queen’s future reinstatement is now lost. The pyre will be set at Worldsend, and many elves will take up the bowstring and hide on the northern border, ere the Darkness comes. The jungle has long defended us, but it is no sure guard for the Children of Magrud, Curse her Name."

"Allow us to pass, Milady," begs Valandil. "I am answering the call, as surely we must in these dark times."

"High Elves often speak of leaving Edion," she snides, "but Wood Elves feel no such compulsion. We will tend the gardens of Edion as long as we may, forever perhaps. Lóliévar, the Beaked Dragon, waits for us in Warmwater Bay, for there are no more High Elves to go to Istalion."

"And that is why I have come. The Cáladain folk are my train, and go with me on matters of great importance."

"Nay," she remarks, moving closer. Her fingers scribe the contour of Valandil's cheek. "You do not feel the call, else I would see the flame in your eyes."

Valandil gives no reply, but lowers his gaze.

"It is because you do not yet love Edion," she remarks, turning round to face her kin. Their bows are still drawn. "Or perhaps because you have some other errand, no doubt of grievous import, that you should come so far with friends of this kind, and be pursued hither." Neren tries his best to interpret for Yngvarr. With her back still turned, Gwaengail decrees, "They do not look evil, and since they come with an Elf of our kindred, we are willing to spare the Cáladain. But it is not our custom to lead strangers through our land."

The company submits to being blindfolded and led to the hidden city of Arithras, their fate to be decided by Grandal himself, who is said to manifest in the tree-bark of the Queen's empty throne. This astonishes the companions, for Grandal the Deeprooted was long considered dead, slain in ages past by the orcs, and history does not record any instances of the Tutelar reappearing since. Before being bound, Nimlinor seeks clarification. "We were sundered from our kindred in the North," offers Gwaengail, "in the time of Nematranée. We refused to fight our own kin in the Sundering War. Grandal has since reappeared to us in Arithras, and blessed the Throne of the Everqueen with his bark-bones. May she one day return." The elves intone a short prayer in Druidic and make signs.

Valandil is delirious with new possibilities. Here is an elven civilization, before unknown to him, that rejects the call to leave Edion, that wishes to stay behind and fight orcs to their final doom. And the Deeprooted himself seems to support the return of Padrielindë from Mount Istalion and the continued legacy of elvendom on Edion!

The elves bind cloth to the companions' eyes and take their weapons. Yngvarr is loathe to surrender the yothrat stuff, and does so only to Valandil who is permitted to keep it. Valandil is not blindfolded.

"Valandil, ne’er do we hinder our kin. Walk with me in the boughs, if you care to, and tell me of the High Elves."

Part Two

7. Lost City

“Has anyone else cut slits in their blindfolds yet?” asks Neren. No one responds. "Good, because I just thought of it."

It is many days travel through the jungle, made all the more difficult for the blindfolded fellows. Apart from the steering hands of their guides, there is no evidence of their location or proximity to one another while they move. The journey is slow and dull and they feel like many blind beggars with one dog. Amicus is not blinded, of course, and reports often to Neren about their movements.

The trail continues to move in a southerly direction, within the tangle of branches, vines, and leaves and grasses that stand like a wall upon either side. The jungle seems to part by elven-craft, creating new trails through the undergrowth where none existed before. On occasion, the path bends sharply, breaking through moist spider webs, frightening birds into shrieking flurries of panic. But despite days of travel in this fashion, there is nary a scratch or stubbed toe to speak of.

In the evenings, they are unblinded and left in a clearing or hollow. Blankets, water, and food are set out for the company. A fire is kindled, fed by a clean, aromatic wood, which crackles and burns with very little smoke, save for occasional puffs of white. The elves do not join them, but stay hidden in the trees. Valandil is rarely present. He and Gwaengail have begun to tryst. Before long they share the same bed, and develop a strong affection.

To ease boredom, the companions talk to each other and speculate about the orcs. Mabul wonders how the orcs found them, and more specifically how they tracked Neren. Neren fears that the orc-dogs may have gotten his scent, then concludes that maybe the orcs overtook Dasari and captured his favorite purple cloak (and, more gravely, the Iron Scepter wrapped in it).

Yngvarr voices his shame that no Idreshim were present at the council. "I am not representative of my people," he says. "Nor would I want to be."

Secretly, they begin to wonder about the Shards of Thariom. Yngvarr asks Nimlinor if there is a way to open the bottle and use the shards against the orcs. Nim says there must be a way, and confesses that he's thought extensively about the prospect, but doesn't know how.

On the 23rd day of Paleswelt, after many serpent-like turns of the path, the company arrives at Arithras. When their eyes are uncovered, they are standing in an open space, surrounded by trees. The sun of early morning still shines in the eastern sky, and behind them, the jungle is a swarm of colors in its red-gold light. Up ahead, through a rift in the foliage, they see the spires of an ancient city, latticed in golden vine, rising above the consuming jungle. The trees in this part of the jungle are vaster than any they have ever seen, twisted and knotted, humped and misshapen with the growth of unremembered years.

It seems that they have stepped through a high window that looks on a vanished world. "Behold!" proclaims Gwaengail, "You are come to Arithras. And here is the Idle Throne, which the wood elves have made for the Everqueen. May she one day return!" Leading them, she adds, "Here my heart dwells ever. Come with me!”

Arithras was built during the Reign of Nematranée, when the elves charted the world. In the countless ages since, the jungle has overtaken it, but still it stands a proud testament to the artifice of the elven builders. The elves of Arithras split with the Elves of Fil-Garil during the Sundering War, refusing to answer the Queen’s call to battle Anadrieldur. No chronicle of their history since is found in all the lore of Llómydien.

All about the feet of the towers, and all about the green hillsides, the grass is studded with small golden flowers shaped like stars. Among them, nodding on slender stalks, are other flowers, white and palest green: they glimmer as a mist amid the rich hue of the grass. Over all the sky is blue, and the sun of afternoon glows upon the city and casts long green shadows beneath the towers.

The towers draw close around on either side, enclosed by an almost solid wall of trees, thicker and greener than all others. The most persistent trees have overtaken the buildings, and now grow amid the golden walls. In places, orange mushrooms grow taller than a tall man. Many of these show indications of housing dryads.

Arithras is predominantly a wild ruin, but it seems a superb and lordly place, full of rich history and lovingly tended gardens. Her humblest dwellings are more than the palaces of other cities, though many have leaned and slanted to their fall. And though her splendor and spaciousness were delivered long ago to the spotted vines of the jungle, she remains a luster of gold, a magnificence of pearl, all a-throng with spires and cupolas and dry fountain-mouths that the mighty trees of the jungle have not yet overtowered.

The ground underfoot is obscured by a misty radiance. All the streets are empty, and silence sits heavy on the broken housetops and the ruining walls. As the fellows walk amid the heaven-fretting spires, they perceive that they are watched by hidden sentries, and the scrutiny of innumerable fey creatures. Watching with dark, uncertain eyes are the dryads: one for each tree. Valandil finds the city more beautiful than all of Fil-Garil, and wishes to himself that a rift had not formed between these people and his kin.

The company is left to wait in a shaded garden, while Valandil and Gwaengail depart for the Pavilion of Joys (where there is a couch). Neren overhears the lover's conversation and catches the word "couch" in Elvish. "We can't carry a couch with us," says Yngvarr, once informed. "It's ludicrous!"

Leaf-covered pools and strange flowers are abundant in the wide space where the company waits. Hundreds of miniscule fey balance on the flowers with their dragonfly wings outstretched. They make a low droning sound as they move from flower to flower, pollinating the stamens with little wands. Each one is merely 3-4 inches tall, but taken together they appear as a multihued cloud of light, shifting and surging. The fellows are dressed with little aprons by the shimmerlings, fed nectar and honey, and spoonfuls of invigorating fresh water. Narntay sits with his dog, and thinks about how much he loves the creature, and what he would do without him. Neren climbs a tree, winning to the rooftop of an adjacent building. There he looks out over the Warmwater Bay and sees a fleet of ancient elven tree-ships swaying peacefully in their berths. Rummaging through his pockets, he withdraws a piece of charcoal. Realizing it is his last piece of charcoal, Neren uses the pixie paint to draw-create another piece of charcoal, using that to commit the scene to paper. The image before him is breathtaking, and he's not quite able to capture it. Realizing he is about to gain audience with Grandal, who is a messenger of the Artifex, Neren says out loud, "And he wants to destroy all this."

Meanwhile, Mabul and Yngvarr discuss Nimlinor. "What happened in the desert is not his fault," says Mabul, defending Nim. "He is a man, just like us. He has his own wants, his own destiny. But he's been singled out from the beginning."

“I would ask you this, Mabul. If you bring together six strangers, and five of them decide one is not trustworthy, does that not lend credence to the theory?”

"Nim is more noble than we give him credit for," argues Mabul.

"I will pray to Elai for guidance, and Furis for strength," says Yngvarr.

"It is good that you have gods to guide you," remarks Mabul, easing down.

Neren now has to get down from the rooftops. He intends to use the Spellpool to acquire the featherfall spell, but realizes he left his shardstone down below. So, he draws a picture of the shard with the pixie paint in the last shape he remembers, but it isn't in that shape anymore so the attempt fails (probably for other reasons as well). Having a copy of the shard, he tucks it away for some later purpose. Finally, in fear, he starts to climb back down, but this particular tree has flowers that only bloom when the sun goes down. It's too terrible, so he goes back up and waits. Eventually Neren's elven minder, Larenwë, finds him and leads him down the tree. "You were bidden to stay in the garden," chides Larenwë.

"Nim is more noble than we give him credit for."—Mabul to Yngvarr

At length, Gwaengail and Valandil return. It is night, and the city is aglow in silver moonlight. Gwaengail takes them now to see Grandal, explaining:

"When Nematranée was Everqueen, each of her colonies was given an acorn of the Tree-Father. The druids planted it in the heart of each city, spawning an avatar of Grandal the Eldest and weaving his roots into a throne for the Queen. In Arithras, one may commune with Grandal when standing before the Idle Throne.”

8. The Idle Throne

They are shown to the heart of Arithras, to a space that the jungle has not yet wholly usurped. Here they find a raised dais that gives the impression of being far older even than the adjoining edifices. It is square in form, made of lichen-encrusted stone, and richly engraved with coiling sigils. Creepers and vines spill from the edge and rill down a flight of twenty broad steps, atop which is a wide landing paved in grass, soft as velvet. Here rises the Grandal-Tree, greater than all the trees of Edion, whose roots are woven into a spectacular knotted throne. The boles and boughs of the throne are a marvel to see, sturdy and splendid despite their marvelous age.

If any mortal had ever penetrated so far into the jungle and could have looked upon the throne by daylight, he might perhaps have seen a dead tree, or passed it by without notice. On this especial night, however, a shaft of moonlight falls upon the bowered throne, lighting it to silver.

If the earth has a heartbeat, it can be felt here. If you are quite still, you can hear the grinding down of mountains, the stretching upward of trees, the pushing outward of continents.

Gwaingail kneels before the throne. The beauty of the tree awes even Neren, who opens his mouth to say something flippant, but can’t. Valandil sheds a tear, then kneels beside Gwaingail. Reluctantly, Neren does the same. Nimlinor, Yngvarr, and Mabul continue to stand. The company advances up the stairs.

Yngvarr is uneasy. His hands clench and unclench in the shape of his staff, though he is comforted somewhat by the fact that Amicus is playful and happy here. Neren has a horrible thought—Magrud's place must be equally horrible as this is beautiful, and Syra ended up there.

At this, a being’s face, full-bearded and wrinkled, but with a jolly look upon the rough features, appears sharply defined upon the throne bark. In wonder that turns to startled rapture, the fellows gaze at the miraculous being, and sustain for a moment the strangely thrilling vastness of its eyes, in which they seem to find an obscure recognition. These eyes are windows to the Artifex, who has watched them all along with a great deal of curiosity. “So I’m to decide another dispute, eh?” says the giant tree in a voice like the grinding of rocks. “Well, my dears, what is it this time?”

"So I’m to decide another dispute, eh?"—Grandal, awakened

“Valandil Son of Vondir has brought the Bottled City of Yoros to M’bol Tan, and with him go five companions, five Men," announces Gwaingail. "My father Carathlorn bids you to decide their fate.”

Grandal's presence awakens in Valandil a sense of awe. He finds the tree grandfatherly and assuring.

The tree makes a furrowed expression, deeply graven. "Most assuredly you do not need my advice. I am but an emissary of the Artifex, who sends me in due course to teach the elder races. It do not know what is best for Men better than they do themselves.”

"We seek passage to Istalion," says Yngvarr, defiantly.

"I will not hinder you," replies Grandal. "Rather, I congratulate you on your sublime perseverance. But why, indeed, have you come this very far?"

"The Shards must go to Istalion," says Yngvarr. "It is the last respite from Tharthammon."

"And what will you do when the shards are hidden so safely, if truly that place be safest?"

"That is the best hiding place we can think of."

"And what then will you do, if Tharthammon is defeated and the Orcs are slain? When the blood fills the seas red and the heavens fall, what will Men do with Edion that they have not already done?”

"Will will defy... the Artifex," says Neren.

"Ohhh, Him!" thunders Grandal. "The Artifex has watched you carefully, Men, whom he did not create. And what has he observed? Wars, hatred, tyranny… destruction of all the beautiful things of olde. The Artifex has indulged you in all ways and denied you nothing. He does not ask for gratitude, or love, or even recognition. Would you neglect the commandments of He who in wisdom, in piety, and in ancientry, surpasses the most enlightened, the most devout, and the most ancient inhabitants of Edion?"

"If he decrees the destruction of our world, then yes. We will defy him," challenges Yngvarr. "Besides, it's just the same with orcs and elves, only on a smaller scale."

"But were it not for Men, Queen Sebrilia would still be alive, and the present age would be less troubling,” says Grandal, uttering a cavernous sigh that seems to issue from the Artifex himself.

"The Heart was broken by an elf," corrects Nimlinor.

"In the course of human war," finishes Grandal.

"Compromises must be made," argues Narntay in the druidic tongue. "It is a matter of us living together, new races and old." At this, Grandal raises an eyebrow.

"We are not sheep to lay down before our masters and have our hearts cut out at their whim," defies Neren. "This is the only world we have!" Neren is very angry, and scared, and sad.

With a brightening countenance, Grandal replies: “Ah. Fair of all fairs it must seem to you, this world Edion, but there are fairer worlds still to gaze upon, my dear, to outshine in glory and happiness the world we have here today." With an expression that is haggard but strangely buoyant, Grandal adds, “It is needful that the agreement between elves and dwarves should not be broken, that the orcs be free, since otherwise the Artifex will have been thwarted, and it is ill to thwart a good design.” Pausing, Grandal then winks at Neren with a roguish smile. "So I say, 'Get on with it, Nerenethos.' Go to Mt. Istalion if you wish, or don't. You have already shown that you have little regard for the designs of the Artifex, or the opinions of trees. But know this: no man, having journeyed thither, shall remain thereafter as he was before.”

Grandal's visage withdraws, until the tree-throne is no more animate than wood and leaves.

“Lóliévar, the Beaked Dragon, is resting in Warmwater Bay. When you are ready, I will take you there," says Gwaingail. "As Grandal made no assent or denial, I will not hinder you further."

"I will return to Edion, Milady, when our questing is done," says Valandil. Gwaingail removes a plump acorn from her pocket and gives it to Valandil. "This will ensure that you come back... for me, and for our son." They share a smile.

Yngvarr is more defiant than ever. "Should we even take the Bottle to Istalion?" he asks, now doubtful.

"It is more foolish than ever," answers Nimlinor. "I am party to this madness no more."

"I will leave with you and return to Sol-Fatara, Nim, if that is your decision," assures Yngvarr. "I'd rather die in the North with my kin, than foolishly out in the void. Leave the Bottle with these elves, I say. Let's go back and fight."

"So quickly you abandon everything, Yngvarr!" enrages Valandil. "The Bottle must go to Istalion, else we hasten the Adversary's coming. If you want to save Edion, the path lay West over the waves." Valandil points out to sea.

"It was Talqavist who told us that the end will come if Tharthammon gets these shards," counters Yngvarr. "He is the only one speaking doom."

"I am elf-kind" says Valandil, consumed. "I am not even a man, but I fight for men. Why am I more wed to this quest than you are?!"

"Sheverash is were I belong," adds Neren, "but I agree with Valandil... the Bottle must be taken out of Tharthammon's reach. Istalion is the only place I can think of that will put it there. After Istalion, we will have discharged our duty as a fellowship."

"The opinions of the fellowship are no more informed than Talqavist's," says Nimlinor. "He is the father of our fear."

Neren asks Nim what he would propose, if hiding the Bottled City is not the solution. Nim suggests to use the Bottled City as bait for the Adversary, but falls short of suggesting a trap. "We have too many unanswered questions to make a good decision," determines Neren. "We need more answers. Our questions have been leading us to Mt. Istalion from the beginning. Though my heart says Shevarash, my oath says the Mountain."

At this very moment, when all seems lost to Valandil, he feels the Call. His eyes brighten several shades. "My desire for Istalion has become personal," he announces with dread, knowing that he must now leave behind a world he would rather stay in. "I know the Way. We leave in the morning." Valandil walks down the steps from the throne.

To Nimlinor, Yngvarr says, "You and I will never be friends, but I owe you an apology. I believe now that you were right to distrust Talquavist from the beginning. Perhaps we can have a small understanding that will allow us to travel together." He leaves down the steps.

Mabul finds a secluded spot down the stairs to wait out the night and dwell on his thoughts. Nim and Neren are left on the dais. "Do you think Tharthammon can get there?" asks Neren of Nim, "to Istalion, I mean."

"I don't know." Later, he argues against going with Neren. "I do not think I was built for this fellowship. It brings out the worst in me, and I bring out the worst in it."

Narntay stays to contemplate things by the throne. Amicus curls up at the foot of the throne and sleeps. Narntay finds this very telling, and is comforted. "I will be there in the morning," he says to no one.

"I do not think I was built for this fellowship. It brings out the worst in me, and I bring out the worst in it."—Nimlinor to Neren

The sun rises over Arithras. As the company assembles, there is no sign of Nimlinor. "I think he has decided we would be more of a fellowship if he were not her," explains Neren to a concerned Valandil, and for a time they lament Nimlinor's desertion. But the wizard is merely late in arriving, and comes quickly down the path to join them. “All of you are my friends, and I think of you each as equals," proclaims Valandil, adding, "It is very important to me that we finish this together This is my world also. It will not end. I will defy." Valandil hugs Nim, joyous. Nim lightly pats his back, three times. "There is still a lot between us," says Nim to Mabul. "I know," replies the barbarian, "but it is good to see you." They shake hands, the first interaction between them in 28 days, since the incident with the gnolls. Valandil then apologizes to everyone for his outburst at the Idle Throne. He bears no anger toward his fellows.

9. Straits of the World

Outfitted and rested, the fellowship departs with Gwaingail and a small escort for the Straights of the World, a slender peninsula jutting out into the Eavon Ocean and sheltering on its eastward side hundreds of nestling bays. The peninsula is windswept and generally barren, with a natural wildness and ruggedness that Yngvarr finds reminiscent of places in Kandor.

Running from the mainland to the realm of Worldsend, the journey affords a varied panoramic view of the Eavon Ocean. A few sheltered mangroves and dry riverbeds add to the remote and difficult character of the peninsula. Lóliévar, the Beaked Dragon, is said to be dormant in Warmwater Bay, at journey's end.

The trek takes a few days. It is early one morning, as the company crosses a region of weed beds and brackish pools, the troupe is alerted to an approaching menace. A morning fog hangs over the ground, obscuring vision, and it is not until the creature is dangerously close that it can be identified.

Emerging from the fog bank is a giant crocodile. It is a large-headed specimen with a heavy set of disagreeable-looking jaws. A pair of bony ridges run from the eye orbits along the center of its snout, becoming more pronounced at the nostrils. The beast is a dark olive brown color, with black cross-banding on the tail and body. It has extremely powerful jaws, sharp welters, and jagged claws. It has the strength to break a large animal’s legs with its tail.

Gathering all its bulk, it steps forward, slowly, not threateningly, and speaks in crocodilian. “Are you Neren?” it asks. "They say you can talk to animals." "No, it's a lie," replies Neren in Crocodilese. The giant crocodile, who calls himself Blurt, proceeds to ask Neren's help in a certain matter.

"I require a bit of greatly-needed dentistry, and I wonder if you might assist me."—Blurt to Neren

Blurt explains, "There is an uncomfortable bit of decaying meat lodged between my right lower teeth, near the back.” The croc opens its mouth to the fullest extent, then tries to articulate the rest of a sentence with the mouth open, “...can you see it?”

“Well of course I can," says Neren. "I am the most clever of all men.” “Everyone says so," confirms Blurt.

"I'm going to go inside the crocodile's mouth for a while," explains Neren to the crowd of disbelieving onlookers. "I'll be right back." The draft from the crocodile’s breath is hot and steamy, and rank with the smell of decaying fish. True enough, he finds an unseemly chunk of rotting meat deeply wedged between two rear teeth. Neren dislodges the offending morsel with Steel Leaf. He then turns to the back of the croc's mouth, inspecting it with a sunrod. He frees some leftover bits of food stuck to the tongue, kicking them down the throat. When the cleanup is done, he emerges.

"Thank you, Sir!" acknowledges the crocodile. Then Bald appears, another croc seeking attention to tooth aches. Then Stomp. Then Racket. Then Bob-Thrust. "Me too! I can’t feel the left side of my face it hurts so bad.” Unable to get help from his fellows, Neren does the majority of the work in this makeshift clinic, though Narntay stops bleeding gums and festering wounds with the application of minor spells.

When the job is done, there is pile of foulness as tall as a goat, all rotting and full of parasites. Unfortunately, the scent of this mess is an attractant to all manner of unseemly creatures, the most urgent of which is a hissing, head-butting rhinoceros beetle the size of a large dragon!

This gargantuan black beetle has a pair of large, forked horns, one on the top of its head, and the other projecting forward from the middle of the thorax. It gives off a loud hissing squeak as it lunges forward on six legs, each ending in sharp claws.

Yngvarr is the first to act. "Be wary!" he shouts, moving out of the path of the rampaging monster. "Get away... it wants the food!" realizes Neren. Valandil and elves back away from the insect. Dozens of arrows are trained in defense. The rest of the company is trampled underfoot. Following Neren's lead, the crocs attack the beetle, throwing their considerable weight into the fight. The heroes quickly control the insect. Mabul slices off three of the jointed legs and kills it with a deft crack to the armored head. One of the crocs, Racket, was slain.

Grieving the loss of their friend Racket, the crocs ask Neren where he is bound to go next. When told, they urge him to reconsider. "That way is dangerous!" they say. "I cannot be deterred!" stands Neren. As payment for the dentistry, the crocs offer to accompany the fellowship to the edge of Warmwater Bay. Neren asks if he can ride one of the crocs during the trip. They confer, and Bob-Thrust agrees to carry Neren upon his back. Mabul negotiates a seat atop the crocodile Stomp. They try to get Yngvarr to do likewise, but he isn't having any of it, preferring instead to walk.

10. Warmwater Bay

The company reaches Warmwater Bay on 30 Paleswelt, the last day of summer.

Warmwater Bay is a large pool of warm water, rotating very slowly in a clockwise manner around Vela-Andúin, the Beaked Dragon, which drifts lazily in the bay’s center some twenty miles offshore. The water in the slow-churning vortex is blanketed by thick mats of floating vegetation. It is an unusually fertile stretch of ocean—a marine jungle, if you will—that is so dense you can walk it on foot. Many seaweeds grow in the troughs between the waves, providing a lush carpet, dark green and gold, extending from the coast all the way to the giant turtle.

Distantly, the Node of Life looks like a gently domed island on the horizon, like an emerald, set in a field of peaceful gold. Overhead a myriad sky of tropical birds and insects soar through the salted breeze.

Gwaengail explains, “For sixty cycles, Lóliévar has rested in the warm ocean. It waits for the wood elves to go back to Istalion… we are the last great population of elves on Edion. But we will never go.”

At this point, the elves break company with the fellowship. Saying her goodbyes, Gwaengail vows to Valandil, “I will carry your son until you return.”

“I think she said, 'son!'" exclaims the eavesdropping Neren to Yngvarr. "It was a love couch!”

"It was a love couch!"—Neren

The fellowship steps out onto the thick, organic mantle, churning up a rich, bioluminescent fauna. The mat yields to the step, but falls a few feet below the waterline under the weight of a person. Warm water quickly floods boots and drenches clothing. Little scavengers and insects crawl out of the weeds, clambering to safety. All around there is life, vast and unbounded: creeping, swimming, hopping. The surrounding sea teems with every imaginable species of ornamental fish, brilliant walls of coral, gaping giant clams, and the scuttling forms of crabs big and small. Many dangers lurk below: blacktip reef sharks, blue-spotted stingrays, dragonfish, poisonous sea snakes, and worse.

Negotiating the sargasso is like wending through a maze. For hours, they toil, sloshing from stretch to stretch, never seeming to cover much distance.

Soon they encounter a pair of bizarre, herdlike creatures standing eerily on the seaweed, grazing on the most succulent vegetation. They resemble nothing more than bloated buffalos with stumpy legs. Each has a peculiar, muscular tail, tipped with chitinous knobs. The head is perched upon a long, weak neck that seems barely able to support its weight. It resembles a camel, but with shaggy fur, bristly tufts of facial hair, and long, almost fey-like ears. Even from a distance, the eyes are morbidly bloodshot.

"Well, I have no idea what those are," declaims Neren. (They are catoblepases.) He calls out to the creatures in animalspeak, but doesn't comprehend their noises. "We should... go another way."

Before they can choose a different path, a giant praying mantis descends upon the scene, attacking the party with its grasping, spiked forelegs. Before it can strike, the bug is blasted by a ray of dark energy, shot directly from one of the bloodshot beast's eyes. The ray is dark and cold with the surety of the tomb. Instantly, the mantis shrivels and dies, a husk. Another mantis lands nearby, moving quickly to strike Nim. Despite suffering a prickly wound, Nimlinor escapes the attack and falls back.

Quite alarmed, the party engages the surviving mantis. But then, from up over the edge of the mat, a monstrous arrow crab clambers toward the mantis carcass. Apart from its great size, what makes this crab different is the creature's long, spider-like legs and extremely pointed head. It moves with amazing celerity to seize the dead bug.

Drawing blows from the fellows, the living mantis strikes at Nim, but again the wizard escapes capture. Yngvarr, Valandil, and Mabul destroy it on the spot in a flurry of attacks. Another death ray is fired, this time at the arrow crab, and though it is hit directly the creature does not die. In the midst of all of this, another arrow crab arrives to scavenge the mantis husk. Nimlinor responds with bolts of negative energy, inflicting grievous wounds on the newcomer, killing it. Dissuaded from pursuing the carcass, the first crab attacks Amicus instead, dragging the dog under the waterline. Desperate, Narntay grabs onto the creature before it can escape the mat, suffering bleeding cuts from the prickly legs. Nim slays it moments later with a pair of bolts. The dog Amicus coughs up a grateful bolus of seawater as he is pulled from the slough.

The catoblepases awkwardly maneuver toward the mantis carcass. Every step drags the mat further under the waterline, jostling the substrate and making it difficult to maneuver. Sensing that the catoblepases aren't interested in harassing them, the fellows swim round and continue on their way, drenched and paranoid.

So it goes over much of the sargasso. They contend with hungry achaierais, swarms of stirges, and sentient seaweeds, battling their way toward the center of the bay. Eventually, Narntay creates a swan boat using one of this feather tokens. Negotiating the watery spaces between the mats proves easier than walking on the mats directly.

11. The Beaked Dragon

Finally, their destination comes more discernibly into view.

The island seems to blaze with a light that is not that of the sun, a light upon it for which language has no name. The azure heavens above cause all nature to rejoice below. The jungle begins at the rim of the turtle’s shell and covers the entire island in a flowering green canopy. Trees sway gently in the ocean breeze: broadleaf ferns, great leaning palms, strangling fig vines, draping mosses, orchids of rampant bloom, wide-leaved grasses taller than young trees, and innumerable stranger plants, all thriving in the hot, constant wetness.

Several small, ribbon-like streams empty into the sea from beneath the spreading palm trees. The most remarkable feature of this island, however, is not the verdant slopes, nor the lush fauna, but the giant tortoise shell upon which it sits.

The fellows disembark the swan boat. Almost immediately, they experience a feeling of unbearable heat, an intense ardor of life rising within them, as if it would burst the confines of their hearts. The ardor of the heat is tempered by the perpetual dew distilled from the falling streams, whose monotonous sound inclines the heart to slumber.

"Hello!" says Neren, addressing the turtle. There is no answer, so he settles for touching the solid ground. He bathes in a stream. Yngvarr does likewise, and for a time the company enjoys the refreshment of the island's bounty.

No blemish or sickness or deformity can be seen in anything that grows upon the island. A thousand unknown flowers, a thousand shells of fantastic shape, a thousand oddly fashioned snails, adorn the shore. You can actually watch some of the plants growing with a naked eye. Even as you set foot on the ground, strange blossoms appear to turn and moving like living eyes. Their large yellow flowers shine like gold, and exhale a sweet perfume.

The trees are of immeasurable height, whose intertwined roots hang down in the water. All that you see is shapely, but the shapes seem at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of your eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever.

Bright-colored birds are promenading on the branches, and darting hither and thither. Tiny rills spring from low ledges, to collect in pools mirrored by mosses and broad, anemone-like blossoms. The water is cool and sweet. You drink profoundly, and feel its freshness permeate all your parched tissues. Near at hand, are dozens of strange trees burdened with salmon-yellow fruits. A swift warmth fills you as you eat.

Amid the paradise, they soon detect the faint smell of cooking. The odor is flavorsome and rich, urging them to explore the island's interior. Neren is apprehensive. "Do we want to try to skirt the shell, or enter the impenetrable and flower-filled forest?” He finally agrees to be lead by the shoulder, restricting his gaze to the ground. This is little sanctuary from scary flowers, however, which are everywhere.

The thick canopy closes overhead, but the light is not driven from the spaces between the trees. In the soft glow thrive monkeys, constricting and poisonous snakes, myriad birds, lizards, bats, insects, predatory cats, and other creatures only conceived of in the imagination. Molds and moss-encrusted mounds carpet the jungle floor. Also here are broadleaf ferns, shorter vines, and small and large flowering plants: many sentient and predatory.

Trumpet-shaped flowers of vivid orange, bright yellow, and intense red, bend over and shake off clouds of sticky enzymes. Nim and Neren are drawn, as by a walking dream, to follow the sweet odor. They walk to a copse of gigantic bushes with towering stalks of purple blossoms. As the brothers approach, the plants crane their stems and both willingly climb into spiny-toothed leaf traps. Nimlinor helps Neren curl up into a trap before securing his own. Bathed in acid secretions, the brothers lay quietly trapped whilst their companions struggle to free them. Nim is pulled free, the stalk severed by Valandil and the trap pried open by Mabul and Yngvarr. Neren cannot be helped. His trap is flung high out of reach and the stalk is lost among a jungle of identical ones.

All the lights of jungle suddenly intensify. A ribbon of multicolored lights weaves through the trees, like a rainbow in flight. This optical phenomenon closes around the mantraps, forming a noose. The circle narrows very quickly, urging the mantrap to open its throat and release Neren. The saboteur is gently lowered. He crawls about in a stupor, confused by the lights. His fear of plants is mastered by this experience.

The rainbow telescopes into a serpentine tail, and from this rises a strangely beautiful snake with feathered wings in every color of the visible spectrum. It speaks telepathically to Valandil, issuing no sounds from its venom-dewed lips. “Welcome, Valandil, to Vela-Andúin. You have come far, and now, allow me to take you a little further.” The creature introduces itself as Cotopaxi, explaining, "I am Caretaker of Vela-Andúin, posted by the Druid Ophelius to defend the Node of Life. It is my task to order it, and to preserve what may be preserved.”

Valandil introduces himself by lineage, and asks what he must do to stir the Beaked Dragon and depart Edion. "We are already underway," answers Cotopaxi.

Narntay kneels and prays.

The couatl addresses everyone telepathically, saying, "The gnomes will provide adequately for your entertainment and nourishment. Their garden lies not far away, and in it is a pavilion, which you may occupy. Food and drink will be served regularly to you, and in plenteous quantities.”

Still delirious, Nimlinor says aloud, "Ooh, gnomes, we are going to Granitehome." Neren adds, "They are small."

"They are small."—Neren, stating the obvious

12. The Hospitality of Gnomes

The couatl leads them through a dense expanse of jungle, to a space below a small hill. Lying round this hill is a small country of fields and tamed woodland only a few hundred yards broad. A little village of some fifty burrows, taverns, inns, and workshops is nestled on the hillside with windows looking to the great lawn. The inns have fanciful names like “The Bright Sylph” and “Dash of Gold,” and, given their openness and architectural dependence on trees, they seem to be made with elves in mind.

Late afternoon is bright and peaceful upon the lawn, where the flowers glow red and golden. Butterflies play among the grasses. Out on the lawn there are banquet tables arranged beneath a specially large tree. Lanterns are hung on all its branches, and more promising still (to your wearied minds): an enormous open-air kitchen is erected in one corner of the field. A stable of cooks, from every inn and eating-house in town, have gathered to stoke the fires. The smell of rich, flavorsome food emanates from the kitchen, filling the field with temptations of dinner.

At least a hundred gnomes are about running errands, tending plots, and concerning themselves with daily affairs. Carts roll up and down the hill, on the backs of ponies, bearing every kind of provision, commodity, or luxury that can be obtained in this land of bounty. A few flocks of geese meander about, and there are sheep on the hill. It is the first time any of you have ever seen a gnome. Their kind left the Hither Lands long ago, by the grace of Old King Seviamos, before any of you were born. Even Valandil, who was born in the 940th year of the Age of Light, missed their departure by 13 years.

To their eyes, the gnomes are short, generally round, with bright cheeks and big noses, and they seem to be very industrious. Not a one of them is milling about or doing anything lazy-looking. At first, they are so preoccupied with their chores that they fail to notice the company's arrival. Cotopaxi bids them farewell and disappears into the jungle.

Eventually, a round gnome with a tall, wide-brimmed hat, seeing lenses, and a fancy cane sees them and comes over. “Masters!” exclaims the gnome. “Welcome! There is room and to spare for incomers!” He hollers, “Incomers! Incomers!” “Hurray! Hurray!” shout all the gnomes, halting their work. Hundreds of little bodies come streaming onto the lawn. “Many Happy Arrivals!” they shout, clapping joyously.

“Oh, furious… my manners! I am Laird Pirabby Bridlegoose," says the hollerer, "and welcome to Vela-Andúin! Welcome!” He bows. “Such a surprise, this is, seeing Men again. We haven’t naught but elf company since, well, since forever." Narntay thanks Mr. Bridlegoose twice for their hospitality—once in Granitehome, and once here. “I see we are already underway," notes Bridlegoose, "… our journey to Sapphire Bay shant be more than two times a twenty-day, plus one. You’ll be resting your eternal hearts in the Mansions in no time. In the meantime, allow me to see to your every need. Dinner will be served at sundown, which is very soon… so let me show you to your seats. Afterward, beds shall be made for you at the Dash of Gold. If there is anything else you require, you have but to ask.”

Neren tells Mr. Bridlegoose that he has something he'd like to return to the gnomes. He tries to produce Dram, but the construct hides. "Dram is strong-willed for a homunculus," explains Neren. Bridlegoose tells Neren that Dram used to belong to Furduch Gathergold, but that it seems Neren is Dram's master now.

“It should please me to do more good deeds with you," begs Dram, surfacing. "I want to go where the Cáladain go." The creature makes a dirt hand print on its chest to make its point. Nimlinor explains to Dram that he's someone else's property. Discouraged and looking for supporters, Dram eyes Mabul, who warmly welcomes the clay statuette into the fellowship. Mabul feels a kinship with Dram, as both were bonded to a master, now freed. Valandil also wants the homunculus to stay with Neren. Yngvarr weighs in, "All creatures should be free, and it is Dram's will. He stays with us." This seems to please Narntay, who doesn't say one way or the other but appreciates the way Dram and Amicus play together. (Dram doesn't like it very much, more often than not finding himself buried under something heavy.) Neren insists on asking Furduch. Maybe an arrangement can be made with Dram's master, such that Dram can continue on the journey with Neren. In the meantime, Neren tells Dram that as a condition of his companionship, he must never call him 'Master' again. Dram says that it is not in his nature, so Neren says he can call him Master quietly, and then Neren loudly. Dram tries it, saying, “Master Neren” with the requested emphasis. Neren decides he can live with this.

Walking over to the dinner party, Bridlegoose asks Neren if he chanced upon his copy of Pirabby’s Guide to Reagents: Instructions and Annotations (A most profitable treatise on the Alchymystry of Gnomes during his exploration of Granitehome. Neren shrugs off the question. Later, Yngvarr asks Neren if he's going to share with Bridlegoose that the tome is now in the basement of the temple of Matravus. Neren isn't sure, but gives Yngvarr one of those looks.

They are seated at the head table with Pirabby and the other lairds: Knut Pipwhistlion, master of food gathering; Furduch Gathergold, master of herds; Kithkini Shortankard, master of gardens; Chlodwig Lafftalligon, master of cleanliness; Woart Kappelcourt, master of cooking; and Gudmunder Fflamtalligon, master of masters; seven in all, with the Fflamtalligon seeming to be the most important, seated at the table’s head. Pirabby is master of guest relations. He sits with the fellows.

“Fellow Gnomes and Distinguished Guests!” says the Fflamtalligon, with little ceremony. “Let’s eat.” The laird snaps his finger, and with great speed food and vessels are set in order by invisible hands. A second snap, and the boards blaze with faerie candles. Dram is feeling entirely unsocial, and hides from sight, obscuring his whereabouts in Neren’s pack.

The gnomes hear tale of Valandil's long journey over a meal of delicious savor. They drink a clear wine that fills the heart and frees the voice. Before long, everyone is singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking. Mostly, the gnomes sing about growing vegetables, making toys, polishing gems, and other gnomish things. Nimlinor takes his cowl off for the first time in this long tale, and eats heartily. All hearts and spirits rise to the occasion, and the voices ring out in mirth and laughter. The gnomes sing many songs, songs that begin merrily and end merrily. As they dine, each gnome comes round the head table to introduce himself or herself personally. By the time the process is done, the sun has gone down, come up, and gone down again. The passing day is 1 Gildember. Far away, the dragon Praxis comes down from Mount Istalion and summer ends.

At last, they retire to the inn. Even from the outside it looks a pleasant house to familiar eyes. The building fronts the festival lawn, with two wings running back on land partly cut out of the lower slopes. The door is open and warm light streams out of it. Over the door, the sign reads "Dash of Gold by Furduch Gathergold." The sound of an entertaining music, humorous and rollicking, coming from within, and many gnomes are singing when the fellows enter. For many gnomes, the celebration continues in the tavern with no sign of abating.

Running through the middle of the inn is a great tree. Everything is designed around this tree, from the arrangement of the rooms to the décor. Inside are chambers, parlors, and bedrooms in great number. The fellows are shown to a table of dark polished wood, upon which are lit many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly. When they finally retire, they find their mattresses and pillows are soft as down, with blankets of white wool. Against the opposite wall is a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stand brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot. There are soft green slippers set ready beside each bed. New clothes are tailor made for the guests and set out. The fellows hardly lay themselves on the deep beds before a soft drowsiness takes possession of their senses, and they fall deeply asleep. It is a comfort they've not known since they can remember.

The next morning, Neren enjoys breakfast in the tavern and consults Furduch Gathergold, an old gnome with a white beard. Neren produces Dram, who is upset at seeing Furduch. "Maaaaaster?! You left me, maaaaaster. Dram is NOT happy!!!” Furduch explains, "Dear Dram, I left you so as someone needful could come along and find you. And look who did: Neren the Fey! He is your master now.” The gnome then begs Dram to go outside and play Hide-and-Seek. He counts to twenty while the homunculus goes and hides. Privately, he tells Neren that Dram has a higher purpose. If melted down, inside the creature's clay belly is found a key. Purportedly, the key "can defeat any lock made by gods or men, but not dwarves." Though he made Dram as the key's unknowing warden, Furduch always put the key first, and when the time came he left the key in Edion where it could serve some eventual purpose.

"Twenty! Here I come Dram!" exclaims Furduch, running out to find Dram. (Dram hides below a plant that is unearthed from the garden, making a rather obvious mess.)

Nim comes down to the tavern wearing a bathrobe. Noticeably, he does not carry his shardstaff. "Well, if you’re going wear your pajamas, I’m going to wear my pajamas too”, says Neren, who runs upstairs and changes, then returns. Meanwhile, Yngvarr takes his dirty Idreshim cloak and throws it away. Everyone comes down refreshed and cleaned. Neren toasts the Fellowship and their hosts. Valandil toasts their friendship, and too Neren's valorous change of heart concerning flowers.

When asked about his conversation with Furduch, Neren changes the subject, saying only that Dram was made for a special purpose and that the homunculus would continue with them to Istalion. Over breakfast they talk about the Valandil's child. Nimlinor jests that Valandil needs to make an "honest woman" out of Gwaingail. Neren jokes about Dulpae, saying that he and his brother both favor women with wings. Nimlinor doesn't get it. They all toast the new father. Plans for a celebration are proposed, and all agree.

The next morn, they all go to the hill crest to see the dawn break. To the East, the turtle’s wake trails off in every color of the visible spectrum, like a rainbow effervescing on the sea before settling on the foam. To the West, and all around, is a vast sheet of water, full of cool green light. The Eavon ocean seems boundless to them, whose winding shores embrace the worlds of Edion, Thariom, and Phandiom. "Bless Geyon, and all the gods," says Mabul. Narntay proceeds to make a shrine, and the god is honored by all.

"Perhaps my son will help to reunite my people," muses Valandil. "By taking the wood elves to Istalion, or bringing the high elves back to Edion?" asks Yngvarr. "By bringing them back," answers Valandil, looking Yngvarr in the eyes. "Welcome to Edion," says the Idreshim with a genuine smile. Narntay makes a shrine to Geyon on hill.

This period, in spite of certain forebodings about their future, is the happiest they have known since the Fellowship convened many months ago atop Mt. Farastu. Even so, Yngvarr laments the death of the Crow Father and recounts the tale of the tooth he wears 'round his neck. "The Emperor of Azalan has the Jawbone...a trophy for some room." Witnessing the miracle of Vela-Andúin has renewed Yngvarr. "I have a personal hope for this quest," he reveals, "that my people can rise and fight once again." Yngvarr believes that he must raise the Beast from death, to unite the Cáladain. Narntay concurs, explaining that this would restore parity between the Elder Gods, as well as reimprison The Adversary in Carceri.

They all discuss the merits of serving the gods, or railing against them. Mabul recalls the girl who was to be sacrificed in Osk to the well-god Shaledaggum, holding that it wasn't right—or in any case good—to kill a person to cleanse a well. "This is why the knights of Sol-Fatara came to her rescue," points Mabul. Narntay maintains that the girl's kidnappers did not understand... she gave herself willingly to be Shaledaggum's bride, a great privilege, and one that benefits the whole community. Yngvarr questions his own religion, feeling that he was blinded in Atân by a faith that was a poor fit for his heritage. Mabul's heroism in Kubi-Algi gave the Abishaim hope, argues Narntay, making the case that service to gods and ministers can give people the same hope. "I don't ask anything of my people in return," stances Mabul.

"Come to lunch!" interrupts Dram, settling all disputes.

Part Three

13. Sapphire Bay

In Edion it is 11 Windsonne. The fellows have lost all track of time and calendars, and haven’t felt the need to think about such things for some time. Each has settled into one routine or another on Vela-Andúin.

Valandil things often about Gwaingail and their son. When he isn't practicing his bladedancing, he is deep in reverie. He dreams of sparring with his father and dancing with his mother. Addressing the elven court will be difficult, he fears.

Narntay passes the days in a workshop making scrolls. He searches for Cotopaxi a few times in the jungle, but never succeeds in finding the couatl. The gnomes make a dogbowl for Geyon's shrine and plant berries in the adjacent garden.

Nimlinor works every third days on arcane matters. The rest of the time he spends learning and mastering the Sylvan language. He works with craftsmen to make a toy for Valandil's child, a toy pony that animates when the command word is spoken. He lunches with a different gnome family each day, collecting stories about the Fellowship of Aenor (COB1-8). Mostly, Nimlinor relaxes and reads.

Neren adopts the industriousness of his hosts. Like his brother, he spends a third of his time in the workshop on various magical and alchemical affairs. The rest of the time is spent being Neren. He tries to get a flock of birds to help him fly. (That fails.) He goes into the woods to collect spell components, strengthening his new bravery around flowers. He plays Hide-and-Seek with gnome children (they always beat him). He makes sketches of the Life Node, makes a device for focusing sunrod beams, and continues to learn Elvish. He makes his fake shardstone glow. Much time is spent with Nim, being a brother. At quiet times, the melancholy reminds him of Fil-Garil and he saddens for Syra, Calais, his childhood.

Yngvarr wanders aimlessly for days, overwhelmed by the spiritual nature of the place. His thoughts turn to his people, and his mother. He is seen stroking the fang about his neck. Each day, Yngvarr spars with Mabul atop the hill.

For Mabul's part, his weapons sits untouched in his room. This place is like heaven to him, the gnomes like angels. For the first time in his life, he is concerned with living, not merely surviving. He wears the clothes of the gnomes while he's here, and starts a journal to write about his journeys. He reads a children's book about the kings of old, and plays often with the youngsters.

When they reach Istalion, they are focused. On the 41st day at sea, just as the day is breaking, they are served a nourishing breakfast of cakes and tea. When the meal is finished, the gnomes gather their gear and lead the fellowship away from the village, following a serpentine trail through the wood. The expedition is lead by Laird Pirabby and includes a small train of about twenty gnomes. The path leads to the rim of the turtle's shell. Here they see Lóliévar’s left fin, stretching out a mile or more into the surf. It carves a swath through the waves, churning up a rich, bioluminescence that settles on the foam like a field of fallen stars. Flying fish leap through the salted spray, while schools of dolphins vault effortlessly over the wake.

At last, an island bulks on the horizon. The turtle has entered a region of the Eavon Ocean that extends beyond time and space—an oceanic limbo called the Encircling Sea; which, by some unknowable convergence of planes, the Isle of Istalion passes in a bygone period.

All sense of direction is lost, and the sun is a stranger to the sky, though there is no shortage of light; the sky is strangely lit by the mellowing rays of earliest eventide.

The isle is much larger than you imagined, shrouded in mists and wavering energies. There is no view of the Mountain from sea, and you can form no idea of the possible extent of the land mass.

Drifting rapidly in the wash of a shoreward current, Lóliévar turns toward a system of impassable reefs that encircle the island; but, as the turtle nears it, the reefs seem to divide miraculously, revealing passages through which you float into the mirror-like waters of a still bay. The passage from the rough sea without, to a realm of sheltered silence and seclusion, is no less abrupt than the transition of scenes in a dream.

As the turtle heaves nearer to land, you think you see shard-stones visible in the lapsing of surges on a low beach, and then hidden once more by foam and spindrift.

At length, Lóliévar sets upon a beach of fine, pearly sand. The creature extends its fin over the beach strand, giving a means to disembark.

“Go in peace and contemplation," says Cotopaxi, welcoming them to the Otherworld beyond the Sea. “Warm now be heart and limb,” goodbyes Pirabby.

"Wither you wander—up, down, near or far, here, there or yonder—everywhere leads to the Mountain."—Laird Pirabby Bridlegoose

With that, the gnomes head back to the jungle, running fast, singing, tossing up their hats and catching them. Cotopaxi trails behind them.

The fellows step upon the island. Here the sand is composed of shards from the World Stone, ground to a fine dust by the Encircling Sea. Delirium hovers near as they trod upon the tinkling flakes. A hot white light pours down over everything on the island, like a motionless, universal cataract. Námion and Tinathiél flare with power.

Near at hand is a coastal fringe of forest. The plant-forms are clearly abnormal: they are not the palm-ferns, grasses, and shrubs native to Edion. Their leaves, their stems, their frondage, are mainly of archaic types, such as might have existed in former aeons, on former continents. Except for the lush vegetation, and a few queer-looking butterflies, there is no visible life anywhere. The silence around seems to become the silence of dead ages and of things that have gone down beneath oblivion’s tide.

Valandil leads them into the forest. The trek is a pleasurable one, and this is much to divert the fellows in the varying landscapes. It is an agreeable country, full of running waters and green, flowery woods. They trek for what seems to be an interminably long time, easily the span of many days on Edion, before realizing that the daylight never fades. There is no sun, no moon, and no stars to inhabit the heavens, just the eternal, white-hot energy streaming down from above. Fatigue increases upon them as they travel, so they are inclined to rest and sleep at intervals.

"I didn't expect it to be so large," says Narntay.

They come to a broad, open plain overgrown with tall grasses. The grasses are tipped with yellow barbs, and though the veldt is dry, their shoots are sturdy and green. Neren makes a whistle from a blade of grass, just to have a little noise.

14. Lion

At last, somewhile in the course of their journey, they see hiding in the tall grasses the majestic Lion.

It is greater in body than any lion of Edion, though a perfect example of the Edion lion in every aspect. The beast has a tawny yellow coat, sleeked as by wind, with a thick woolly mane on the neck and shoulders, and a black tuft at the end of its tail. It has an unusually broad and regal face, with a large muzzle. The eyes are widespread, and below its blood-stained nose is an impressive set of jaws, having large and very sharp incisors, and huge, pointed eye teeth. The muscles in the jowls indicate a strong capability for crushing bone and tearing flesh.

The strength of this magnificent creature is seen in its chest and legs, both fore and rear, tipped with extended claws.

When it sees that it has been spotted, the Lion gives a roar that is captured by the winds that scattered across the land, making the fellows weak with fear.

“What ugly thing is this?” asks the Lion, in a voice of thunder, “whose head is in line with his shoulders, but whose ears are short?”

"Master Lion," addresses Neren in catspeak, "Do not attack us! We are just passing through."

Growling, the Lion strides forward. "I am lying in wait for game, for I am dying with hunger. But I have found you, though the portions are small and I doubt the savor.”

"N...n...arntay," skitters Neren, "summon some food for the lion."

Valandil interjects in Sylvan, "We are not your food, and we are not here to harm you. Let us pass!"

“You take me for a fool if you think I will let such a nice piece of flesh get away," says Lion to Neren, "even as I am dying with hunger.”

Neren prepares to be pounced. Spells and weapons are readied. The situation is standstilled for moment, then, Lion offers a deal to Neren. "Pit your strength against mine, and if you win, then truly you are the strength of the earth."

"And if I lose?"

“I will rip you open and eat the blood," says Lion.

Neren explains the offer to the fellows. "We're going to wrestle. I'm going to cast a spell on it to make it weak. If I lose... kill it."

Lion prepares to engage Neren, but Mabul interferes. The barbarian is swept back with a powerful swipe. Lion roars and shakes his mane. The hairs tossed from his neck transform into fully grown dire lions landing poised in the grass. In an instant, the pride attacks.

"I think this is Lion!" shouts Narntay, "the first lion!"

The ensuing fight is bloody and swift. The mighty thews of Lion would make the earth tremble, but the cat's strength is sapped in blast after blast of Nim's enervating magic. Narntay calls down lightning from the clear sky, and finds that the bolts are purer and more powerful than any bolt from Edion. Mabul cuts down one of the catspawn with a clean swipe, but another pounces and grabs him. Neren is seized by Lion himself. "Let go, you stupid, smelly lion!" he screams as Lion rakes viciously.

Nimlinor fires a ray of sickness at Lion, striking true. Neren is dropped in a pool of vomit and blood. Squirming, he shifts and grapples Lion, putting the beast into a hold. "Ha! Men are stronger than lions!" he proclaims, pinning the beast. "If you let me go, we'll let you live!"

The great cat struggles but can't escape Neren's pin.

15. Ole' Zandor

As the last of Lion's spawn is killed, the ubiquitous light of Istalion is darkened for an instant, as by a lampshade. Everyone crouches, wary as a trapped animal.

Looking round, you see leaning over you a giant being, too large and heavy for a human, and taller than a hill giant, though it makes noise enough for ten of them, slumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs. It seems above the distinction of gender, though it will be convenient to refer to him as male, on account of his bushy brown beard. He has a brown coat and wields a staff the size of a sapling. His eyes are not of a color named in human speech, but are filled with twinkling motes of energy. The being’s face is old, creased by a hundred wrinkles. He wears an old battered hat atop his head, with a tall crown and a long yellow feather stuck in the band. A great length of rope fashioned into a net hangs from his belt. A nimbus of power plays upon him and shimmers in his hair.

He speaks to you. It is a terror to hear the voice speaking, not for the sounds, but for the manner in which it is spoken: the language used is wholly a matter of primitive sounds; but a meaning is forcibly conveyed to Narntay. It is the language spoken by Thameera. The voice is faintly contemptuous; a little weary, slightly cruel. It is near as the beating of your heart—and yet infinitely far.

“Do you think to enter with impunity the fields of Istalion and hunt primals?” says the giant being. Only Narntay understands.

"We are not hunters," defies Narntay.

“Your presence here is an unwarrantable intrusion! Who you are, I cannot surmise, though I judge you are come from Edion.”

"I am Narntay of Adell..."

“I say, what are you?! I judge the pointy creature is an elf, true and whole. But what are you?”

"We are Cáladain."

“It is the will of Azandoraft that you should pay a price for your temerity.”

Nim considers that maybe other creatures escaped the destruction of Phandiom, not just Tharthammon and Thameera. Immediately, he worries about the shards, concerned that Azandoraft may want them for himself. "Who is this?" he urges Narntay to translate.

“I am Azandoraft, the all-wise, Master of Beasts, husbandman of Istalion; Eldest, that’s what I am, and it is ill that you have done these things. It is my stead to watch after the Primals."

Lion struggles free and disappears into the grasses. "Lion attacked us," justifies Narntay.

"Well of course it did! It is Lion! Are you so unread in the nature of Lion that you expect mercy from his appetite?”

"No, Sir," says Narntay.

“If you didn’t come from Edion to hunt Lion, what is your purpose?”

"We go to the Mansions to treat the elves, to elicit their cooperation in a war against our enemies."

“That would indeed be a burden," admits Azandoraft. "I recommend that you come with Ole’ Zandor to his house and finish this story in greater detail. I am intrigued for the moment."

They go with Azandoraft through wooded hills and fair, fertile plains. As they travel, he sings a song in a deep, nonsensical voice. His caperings are merry and odd, not quite dancing, not quite walking. Then, suddenly, he stops mid-stride and snores heavily. Nimlinor studies the sleeping giant. "This being is a contemporary of Tharthammon," declares Nim. "Until we learn otherwise, we should assume the shards are not safe. By no means should we share our intentions any more than we have already done." The wizard glares disapprovingly at Narntay.

Moments later, Azandoraft opens his eyes and continues the march. "I respect a man who can travel, stop, rest, and carry on," says Narntay, shrugging Nim off.

Through field and meadow, he leads you to a large, somewhat unimpressive dwelling made crudely out of logs. Attached to this is a shack, leaning to one side, with two windows and a door. Little potted plants sit upon the sills, grown wild from neglect. A great axe is stuck in a cutting stump near a pile of timber.

Near the shack is Horse, the Primal Stallion, munching on a bale of hay. Dog, the Primal Canine, comes running to greet Zandor. “Hello, Dog!” says the Archetype, leaning down to pet the enormous mutt. When Amicus sees Dog, he puts is head to the ground and paws forward submissively, looking up with bewildered eyes. Dog comes over to Amicus, wagging its tail, and suddenly Narntay realizes that Amicus is the progeny of Dog. Dog leans down and nudges Amicus, and the two creatures run off and play in the yard.

“Dog is really friendly,” says Zandor, “and will always be your friend. Though he be a four-footed thing, he will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. Dog teaches us the meaning of devotion.” Seeing that Mabul is staring at Horse, Ole' Zandor adds, “Horse pulls my plow and bears my load; He teaches us the meaning of perseverance.”

Yellow beams flow out brightly from the shack as the door is opened. “Enter, good guests. Come now, and Zandor will refresh you!"

Inside, the shack is part tool-shed, part wood-shed, with a little hearth and strange furs strewn upon the floor. The skins have no living contemporary. There is a crude rocking-chair sized for a giant, and a low table. Gardening and farming implements of every fanciful shape hang from the walls.

Zandor removes his hat and places it on a hook above the door-rim. His thick brown hair falls out; it is crowned with autumn leaves. He grabs a few sacks of grain and places them purposefully around the table in a half-circle, opposite the rocking chair. Zandor lades the table with yellow cream, honeycomb, and wholesome-looking bread and butter. “Well, my little fellows!” he says, stooping so that he peers into their faces. “Sit! And eat if you’re hungry.”

Zandor sits, and fills a smoking pipe made from the root-burl of some unknown tree. The bowl seems to light without a fire. He puffs pleasantly. “Nothing in life is so necessary as the smoke of the Pimmirha plant. Would you like a taste? It is from long lost Phandiom.” The fellows take turns smoking the pimmirweed pipe. While it's a mere hand-pipe in Zandor's hand, the instrument is three feet long. He hands it to Narntay first.

You draw breath, and the hot ashes of the pipe spill onto your lap. You don’t care particularly much, as you are soon transported to a pleasurable, fuguelike state, where everything is perceived with greater clarity. The moment you take the pipe, it draws wisdom from your lips; it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected. You gain the benefit of true-sight. In this state you witness that Ole’ Zandor is wearing his true form, and that everything around you is not polymorphed, or changed, or transmuted in any unseemly fashion. You also note a greater tolerance to pain, and an absent-minded willingness to be talkative and truthful.

"We are taking the Shards of Thariom to the elves, so save Edion from being destroyed," says Narntay, "but we don't know how to find the Mansions of Aldoril." He passes the pipe. Everyone draws in turn.

"Who wishes to destroy Edion?" asks Zandor. He gets many responses from the clear-thinking conversationalists. "The Artifex," says Neren. "The Githyanki," says Nimlinor. "Tharthammon," says Yngvarr squarely. At this last mention, Ole' Zandor raises an eyebrow, precipitating a low grumble. "Now then, tell Ole’ Zandor more about this Tharthammon," he beckons.

The fellows relate the details of their quest in colorful details. Through it all, Narntay must translate. "Why do you sound like Thameera?" quizzes Neren. "Oh that one," groans Zandor. "There are Archetypes and there are Travesties. Thameera's the second kind, I'm sorry to say, a composition so inferior in quality as to barely warrant inclusion among other Travesties. That being so, we both called Phandiom home, and Phandiomkind could understand each other."

When asked, Zandor explains that there maybe four surviving Archetypes from Phandiom, "Perhaps five, if one counts Syngyn."

"What was Syngyn's power?" asks Nimlinor. "You all have powers, yes?"

"Each of us have different talents. Each of us is all-knowing, all-powerful, but in one regard. Syngyn could read the design of the Artifex, could see into the meaning of the future. Mine is a simple brawn and woodcraft: to order the earth and mind the animals.”

"Now you listen to me, little guests. I wouldn’t go meddling with Tharthammon, unless you be strong folk with hearts that never falter! You see, it is the power of Tharthammon to wither and fray all things that go down into nothingness."

"Not a pleasant individual, I might add, and no good at smoking."—Azandoraft on Tharthammon

A shadow seems to pass by the windows at the utterance of Tharthammon’s name. Zandor noticeably shivers, and shrugs his shoulders. Now he speaks in a low, sober voice.

“His grey thirsty spirit draws power out of the earth and spreads like root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it has under its dominion all living things. His pasture is emptiness, darker than the darkness.”

“I am pleasantly conscious of the fact that I am perfect," brightens Azandoraft, "in the manner of my design. Tharthammon too is aware of his perfection. All too aware! It is because of him that Phandiom was expelled from Creation. Tharthammon could never find peace. You see, Ole’ Big-Eye could never know the comfort of fellowship. He had no allies, save the Travesty Thameera who could tolerate his presence from afar. Anyone chosen to be the Destroyer is by nature alone. Quiet contemplation was never his tact, so he used his power to destroy often and loudly. And the other Archetypes noticed him, and became sick with his vanity.” Gravely, he adds, “Phandiom went down in arrogance. We were brought low by sickness in our prime.”

Azandoraft leans heavily in his rocking chair, a look of regret in his starry eyes. “Long since has Tharthammon suffered for his burden. And long since has the Artifex labored to make creatures free of their compulsions. Perhaps that is his gift to you.”

"The Artifex did not create us," objects Narntay.

"But didn’t he? He created the ancient races of Edion, and they created the Gods of Men, who created you."

Neren decides that maybe the safest place for the shards is here with Azandoraft. "Do you want them?" Neren offers. "I'm forgetful," declines Zandor. "Rather they be lost intentionally."

“Well then," finishes the Archetype. "There are certain obligations of a pressing nature that call me, and I must not neglect them too long. I will take you to the Mansions of Aldoril, if that be your destination.”

16. Mansions of Aldoril

Following Zandor and Dog, the fellows go on another long journey following the line of a running stream, deeper and deeper into the hinterlands of Istalion. The waters flow crisp and clear through glades of royally towering blossoms, and fields of tall grasses. At length, the stream becomes a peak-fed torrent, running through valleys under a great mountain. Shard-stones twinkle beneath the currents, like the glint of the rising sun, or the glimmer of gold. A white mist pours into the dell and shimmers on the watervales. Along the way, Neren asks Zandor about the Githyanki. "There isn't much to know, I'm afraid. Long have I dwelled in Istalion, ere Thariom was born, and the Githkin haven't deigned to cross the waves. They never had the chance, maybe."

Scrambling over pebbles and worn rocks, over bubbling waterfalls, and among small flowers in the close grass and wet crannies, the company maneuvers ever higher into the stony hills, winding their way to the heart of the great mountain.

Far inward you glimpse the roots of a tumbled mountain-mass, a-sparkle with the rush and thunder of a hundred waterfalls, feeding swift-running channels and foaming pools. These rivers flow with purest elemental water, and run all the way down to the Encircling Sea. Glimmering rainbows play upon the fume.

Zandor stops. “Here we are!” says the Archetype, breaking a long silence. “I have brought you eighty thousand, four hundred, twenty-three strides, but what that comes to in the measurement of your world I do not know. Anyhow we are near the roots of the Mountain Throne.”

The glassy scaurs and grim ramparts of Mount Istalion, highest and most formidable of all the mountains of the worlds, beetle above you in a vast and dizzying prospect. You cannot perceive the peak, nor the middlemost heights, for the base is capped in a low crown of white mist. But here and there, the mist gives way and you see many visions. Those that look up see a mountain crowned with storm. You hear thunder, and see lightning crashing upon the steep banks, breaking the mountain-side and leaping back with tongues of fire.

Somewhere above it all, perched like a sentinel, is the Dragon Yvalril, Dragon of Autumn, seated upon the Dragon Throne. Great gales are fanned beneath his wings, in splendid ovation, and the rains are heralded beneath the over-hanging pinions.

You have come to the foot of the mountain, to the green roots of tall Istalion. Down the hillsides the young rivers leap away, and run noisily from step to step.

On the cliffs and scars just below the layer of mist, and along the lower slopes before them, you see the Mansions of Aldoril: beautiful, white-walled, many-towered, proud and fair upon the mountain-seat. Here the elves of Edion have retired, in halls built for them by the dragons. The buildings are steeped in a light of enchantment, touched as by the light of the moon on a clear night. Their beauty is multiplied by the spray of a thousand waterfalls, clashing amid slender bridges and causeways.

The trees and foliage of the mansions are aflame with red and yellow leaves. Many tree leaves have already fallen and lay wet upon the pavements. Their guide shows them to a little path winding upward to the mansions. He leans down, addressing them one last time. “Keep to the path. Don’t you go a-meddling with the mountain, and leave any shard-stones where they lay.”

The archetype removes a folded leaf from this pocket and gives it to Neren. “Here is a small bundle of pimmirweed, especially for you. Certain things are good for nothing until they have been kept a long time, and others are good for nothing until they have been used. You must decide which is true of the pimmirweed.”

The Archeytpe and Dog go back down the valley and disappear into the rain. Nim wonders why they are prohibited from taking shardstones. Neren offers a dozen reasons.

It takes the company some time to advance up the trail. Their minds drift to their kin, their people back in Edion. They wonder if they will ever be able to return, both metaphorically and literally. Will Lóliévar wait for them. Will it take them thither even if it remains in the bay?

Breathless from the climb, they finally ascend to the lowest buildings of the elfin mansion. The rain intensifies as they near. At the top are found quaint paths pillared with antic trees. Lanterns are set in the branches, illuming the way in wreathing witchfires. There are no guards posted. In the eternal twilight, great cataracts tumble down the mountainside into the valley below.

Most of the dwellings glow from candles within. None of them have doors, but are open to the terraces. Valandil chooses to enter a dwelling alone. It's a vaulted apartment, appointed with all the luxuries of elvendom. The interior is fronted along its whole width by a pillared porch, with connections to three neighboring apartments. It appears to be a loose-knit family compound.

Though the sound of running and falling water is loud, he hears faint music coming from a nearby hall. Drawn to it, Valandil sees that the hall is filled with elvenfolk, numbering eleven. The master of the house sits in a great chair at the end of a long table. All around, faerie instruments are played by unseen hands in gentle repetitions.

“Greetings, Valandil Son of Vondir,” says the master, rising. “I am Eldien Elentar’s Son. I know your father Vondir Calmcacíl’s Son. Welcome to Istalion!” The elf sweeps across the room to admit Valandil formally. When Valandil explains that he has brought Men to Istalion, Eldien makes a peremptory refusal but is soon convinced to admit the heroes of Edion. They go to welcome them.

Meanwhile, the humans wait on the terrace. Nimlinor wonders if this place exists outside of Time, and dreams up ways to exploit that. "When we return to Edion, could we go back to any time we want? If so, I propose we go back to just before the Tower's destruction and call a greater army to its defense." Yngvarr suggests going back even further, before Talqavist set the orcs in motion. Neren favors that, though he doesn't want to see harm done to Gotri, admitting, "He's a reasonable fellow." Mabul wants to go back even further, to before the reign of Queen Dulpae, to unwrite all the misery of Argentaamn. Neren ponders, "We could go back to save the Furis Beast and reimprison Tharthammon.... but... then... we couldn't defeat the puzzle in Aulmpiter's chamber." But no, Yngvarr points out, "Any Divine Node would defeat Dulpae's prison, so why not steal the Sword of Elai to free the Abishaim?" Neren isn't satisfied. He realizes he saw the Golden Key back when the dwarves brought it through Fil-Garil. Now he wants to go back and tell himself to steal the key and throw it into the Eavon Ocean. But, then, what if Syra never kisses him? He would never fall in love with her. Neren quiets.

Narntay is opposed to the whole discussion, arguing, "Travelers make many choices, but can't choose between things that haven't happened yet."

Reunited with Valandil, Eldien leads them along several passages and up many steps, moving quickly to another compound. There, in meditation robes, Valandil finds Vondir and Alatariel in deep reverie. With his friends waiting quietly on the porch (and feeling more like outsiders), Valandil sits down near his parents, joining the meditation. Eldien goes to announce Valandil's arrival to other families.

Alatariel emerges from the reverie first. Her platinum hair is long and flowing over her porcelain shoulders. She is grave and beautiful, with no sign of age upon her. The Men of the Fellowship find her terrifying to behold, having never seen nor imagined such beauty. A thin sheen of perspiration glistens on her brow as she realizes her son has come home.

They Embrace and celebrate Valandil's coming. “But never should the Llómyd-Landil abandon their post," she protests, "save in death. What has happened?” Valandil recounts the story of Llómydien's Fall and their discovery of the Lost City of Arithras. Alatariel denies knowing anything about the existence of Wood Elves, but rejoices at word of her son's impending fatherdom. When Vondir awakes, he is disturbed by the presence of Men, but invites them inside and appoints them to rooms in the House of Calmcacíl. When told of the struggle against Tharthammon and the company's wishes on this matter, Vondir sends an emissary to summon a council. The matter will be taken to Caradryan and the Princess Padrielindë.

The fellows are given the finest quarters. There are seven elves in this House: The master is Calmcacíl, Vondir’s sire and Valandil’s grandsire. Calmcacíl is attended by his wife Taranwë, and by his sons Vondir and Valanyon, their wives Alatariel and Úmallas, respectively, and Valanyon’s child Mínadan. Valandil has a room, fully furnished, prepared long ago for his coming.

They wait the span of a few hours to convene a council. During this time, the elf wives lay out food and do what they can to ease the burdens of their guests, while the husbands attend Court. Armor is removed, and finespun gowns suitable for Court are given to all.

When the time comes, a clear bell rings out, the warning bell for the High Council. Vondir returns and escorts the Fellowship to the Timeless Hall.

The chamber is upheld by pillars of white stone rising to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves. Far above in the shadow the wide vaulting gleams with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colors. A great oval table is set upon a dais, covered in woven cloth, headed by a regal chair beneath a canopy, and set round with lesser seats numbering at least fifty. Like all of the buildings of Aldoril, this one is open to the outside.

Dozens of elves are seated in assembly, mostly heads of households, but also the oldest and wisest of both sexes. Several other counselors throng the spaces between the columns. The fellowship is shown to their seats directly opposite the unoccupied throne. Standing beside this throne is Caradryan, Sebrilia’s ancient consort and father of Padrielindë, the elven princess.

Caradryan is ageless, but a great sorrow wells in the depths of his eyes. His hair is dark, capped with a circlet of silver. He seems both venerable and hale.

As Padrielindë enters, the elves go silent. She would be their queen, if their domain on Edion still endured.

The princess is young and fair to look upon, yet queenly she looks, and thought an knowledge are in her glance. She is so like in form of womanhood to Caradryan that you can see her close kindred. Her white arms are flawless and smooth, and her face fair and fearless and full of joy. Above her brow her head is covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft white raiment has no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.

So it is that you see her, who no mortal has ever seen: Padrielindë, daughter of Caradryan and Queen Sebrilia. Such loveliness in living thing you have never seen before or imagined in your mind; and you are both surprised and abashed to find that you have a seat at her table among all these folk so wise and fair.

The queen is attended by three magnificent birds, each one exemplary of their species: The first is a green and yellow peacock with a long, straight crest and gorgeous tail feathers. The second is a great masked owl, with a forehead, crown, and nape the color of dark sepia, with pale yellow legs and black talons. The last is a swan, purest white with a black bill and blue markings. The birds alight themselves upon the table, walking wherever they may. They all convey to a feeling of immemorial eld, of years and cycles beyond all record or computation.

There is one additional guest: a brooding energy form that assumes no shape, but adopts a kind of presence. It manifests as a white glare, a blaze of opalescent colors, never the same for a moment in its unresting flux and reflux. The light is agonizingly sweet to gaze up, yet painful, like the light of the sun. The vague shape of a human is discernible in the light. It is the light of Dendwaru, the Silver Prophet, Ethereal Savant. Nimlinor cannot bear to look on it. Neren is more afraid of the savant than he has ever been of Thameera.

Padrielindë seats herself upon the throne, commanding a wide view. She speaks Elvish, as do all the members of the council. However, by some secret magic, her words are understandable in any language. “Here, my friends is Valandil," begins the princess, "Son of Vondir, Grandson of Calmcacíl, Great-grandson of Tembandien, of the High House of Glóradan Thirdborn of Lacoi. We welcome him to Aldoril. Though it is uncustomary, five companions have journeyed with him... five Men. I wonder greatly what brings five Men on so long a journey. Nothing like it has happened in all the ages.”

Valandil tells of the threat posed by Tharthammon. "It was agreed in council with Talqavist and Master Stormblade that I should come here across the waves, and seek your wisdom in these matters. For what can be done about the Shards of Thariom, Milady? The Adversary seeks the shards, and pursues us relentlessly. They are his only means of entering our World Edion, now tread upon by Orcs. By the craft of dwarves, the Orcs are now free of Shargol-Bogra, and anon, the Tower of Llómydien has fallen. Our greatest son, Calin Stormblade, is dead. In seeking your wisdom on the Shards, I pray that you will also renounce this grave moratorium in Istalion, and go back with me to Edion. To fight alongside the Cáladain and the Wood Elves of Arithras... to fight Orcs."

The elves hang their heads.

Padrielindë denies any knowledge of the wood elves, but Caradryan admits that their kind were sundered from the High Elves during war with Anadrieldur. Valandil is infuriated that elven brethren could be forgotten so easily. In hearing Valandil's petition, the Princess remarks, "Azandoraft, oldest and fatherless, was wise to bring you here. You have had some very strange adventures. Few have ever come hither through greater peril, or on an errand more urgent.”

At this, Caradryan frowns. He has never trusted Men, and he still bears malice toward them for the death of Sebrilia. "Do you seek council, or allies in war?" he demands. "You cannot have both."

"Do you seek council, or allies in war?"—Caradryan

"They may have both," differs Padrielindë. "If we decide it, the elves might return to Edion. We might reimprison the Orc Mother, and in doing overturn the doom of Edion. I have ever sought this."

"You would go against the dwarves?" decries Caradryan. "Of the Evercourt, its glory and its fall, and the dwindling of the elves, our tale has been told. In the wearing of the swift years of Edion, our folk have dwindled, our foes have devoured us, and our lordship has passed. It is mete that we honor our agreement with the Dwarves, who are ancient as we, and let pass this age of the universe.”

Padrielindë listens attentively to her father's wisdom. She masters the patience to rebut him, declaring, "Valandil is the last of the Llómyd-Landil, though he be not the last of elf-kind to make the journey home. Word is brought of the Elves of Arithras, long sundered from our halls, who keep a foothold in Edion and strength of arms. There may be naught that we can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it."

Caradryan does not falter. "My daughter, it is the folly of Men that the Archetype is released from his worldly prison. It is the Emperor of Azalan who freed him!”

Dendwaru asserts himself in a musical voice, troubling the lamps with a sudden wind. “I have come over many dangerous leagues to give counsel and hear the unraveling of hard words. It should be known now to the Fellowship, and to the Elves who will hear their counsel, the true nature of the Emperor’s Curse.”

“What is your meaning, Dendwaru, greatest of lore-masters?” asks Padrielindë.

“One hundred and seventy-eight years ago, in the calendar of Men, the Emperor Toum of Azalan destroyed the Crow Father of Kandor in horrid battle. As was made mention, this act precipitated the release of Tharthammon from Carceri, by disrupting the balance of the divine nodes.” Piercingly, as if looking directly into Yngvarr's soul, he adds, "And here in the house of Padrielindë, it shall be made clear to you: The Bane of Azalan was not greed, nor appetite, nor thirst for conquest… but Thameera the Travesty, who spoke often to Toum in dreams, with a fell voice sweetened by words of peace, and order, and dominion. Toum was ensnared by a power greater than himself, and was made to do her bidding, though he was full of doubt and anger.

“Thameera is the architect of Tharthammon’s freedom, and the herald of his coming. And though it shames them, the way it shames a man who injures his child, the Emperors of Azalan are held in thrall by the Travesty, and serve Tharthammon through no fault of their own, save their willingness to listen. Even today, Emperor Gento is controlled by Thameera, and receives her aid.

“But Tharthammon is not yet truly free. The Archetype cannot enter into Edion so long as the Shards of Thariom elude him.”

Narntay hates Thameera more than ever. "She is the sickness of my people," he offers, "and I am the surgeon's knife." Yngvarr's vengeance is also given its sharpest focus. Toum butchered his people and sundered them from Vastare. As a man, Toum must be held accountable for his actions, coerced or otherwise. But Thameera's hand in this gives the northman greater provocation.

"She is the sickness of my people, and I am the surgeon's knife"—Narntay on Thameera

“Which returns us to the matter of the Bottled City of Yoros," says Padrielindë. Speaking to Valandil,“You have brought this here at great peril. You have heard the council of Dendwaru. What is it you desire to be done?”

"Talqavist felt you might hide it from Tharthammon and his minions," says Valandil. "It could be safe here in Istalion."

"It cannot stay here," denies Caradryan. "Though there is a wide waste of time between Edion and the Encircling Sea, these Men have proven that our shores are accessible to mortal-kind. Already war is gathering in Edion. The Enemy may move the servants of his rule to pursue the Bottle, even here. They may already be close behind.”

The princess agrees on this point with her father. "Rather, we should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one." The queen pauses, thoughtfully. “One thing remains for us to attempt: If the Archetype craves the Shards of Thariom—if he needs them to access our world—why not destroy the shards, or render them powerless?”

“Is such a thing even possible?” asks the Silver Prophet, not knowing.

Padrielindë addresses the three birds. “Noble Praxis, Noble Aerdrie, Noble Yvoosl… is such a thing possible? Can the shards be destroyed?”

The owl steps forward and bows to the queen. It speaks in portentous tones, for it is not truly an owl, but the Dragon Praxis in owl-guise.

“My answer is long and weary, but not without merit, your Highness. For one thing, the shards can be destroyed upon the Anvil of Creation, though the Artifex must provide the stroke or lend the Hammer of Creation to the task. The shards were chiseled from the World Stone using these instruments, which the Dwarves now possess.

“But that matters little, as you may guess, because the Bottled City cannot be destroyed or opened in any fashion, save by taking it to Thariom where the banners of Yoros once flew.”

When queried, Praxis reveals the Bottled City must be taken to the Hills of Taniboz, on the Isle of Dunbalad in long lost Thariom. If opened upon the summit, whereupon that city stood, Yoros will spring forth and the Shards of Thariom can be obtained. “But I cannot venture there now, for Thariom is barred to me, though it is not barred from Men, or Elves, or any kind of Edion who wish to go there.”

“If we should seek to go to Dunbalad, how might we get there?” asks Valandil.

Says the peacock, really the Dragon Aerdrie: “By boat, if you endeavor, though the route is fraught with danger. The Trackless Sea confounds the best of navigators, and the waters are filled with the worst kind of derelict spawn. If you should win to the Isle of Dunbalad, you will not find it so inviting as Praxis once did, for it is now the Isle of Firethorns, and the earth wriggles with worms, for the carcass of Thariom is dead and bloated, and many things fester beneath its soil."

Says the swan, really the Dragon Yvoosl: “It is ill news indeed that Tharthammon seeks to destroy all of Creation, and we shall all rue it bitterly, I fear. But any effort to go to Thariom, pardon me for saying, is complete lunacy.”

Padrielindë thanks Yvossl for his wisdom. "But doom and great deeds are both at hand. When there is no hope, we have only to act." She considers her move, then declares:

“I offer you this, Valandil, Son of Vondir,

“As bearer of the Bottled City, I advise you to go to the Isle of Firethorns, in long lost Thariom, as the dragons have declared. I shall provide a vessel and crew of the finest elven mariners, to speed you on your quest. You will open the Bottled City, and retrieve the Shards of Thariom.

“In exchange for this errantry, the Everguard shall be reformed, and I will go personally to Edion to coordinate their attack with the Cáladain, who seem righteous to me. What power still remains in us, here in Istalion, shall be added to your defense. With our weapons strengthened in league, the Adversary may yet be startled.

“With the shards obtained, you will return to Essares-Luminar, where my fleets shall gather, and we will send emissaries to Soulearth to destroy the shards. This will postpone the day of Tharthammon’s evil, until such time that Inzur-Oerid—the Crow Father—can be restored, and balance brought to the divine nodes. The Archetype rightly belongs in Carceri, and we should move to keep him there by whatever craft we may.”

“Then, when Tharthammon’s evil has diminished, we shall rejoin with our lost kin in Arithras, and discuss the future of my court in Edion. Much will depend on efforts to overturn the Dwarven Decree and reimprison Magrud.”

Caradryan forbids this action, but the princess overturns him. “Fil-Garil may be emptied, and its towers rent, but I will not jeopardize this opportunity to right the Balance of Amydd, nor my future reinstatement in Arithras.”

“Heed me, daughter! I will have this as compensation for my consort Sebrilia… your mother! How much more can we sacrifice to the folly of Men?!”

“If we let the matter rest, watching and waiting only, as we so often do, Tharthammon will conquer Edion and Istalion, and win to the mountaintop and thereupon conquer the Artifex himself. The Archetype estranges all who oppose him. Our alliances are therefore our sharpest weapons in the defense of Amydd. You worry over the Dwarven Decree, and you should. The dwarves will be shamed by our return, and they will defy us."

"The Archetype estranges all who oppose him."—Princess Padrielindë
All are silent. There is little agreement among the elves.

Dendwaru adds, “For the Cáladain to prevail in Edion, the Emperor’s Curse must be lifted. Thameera must be defeated.”

Padrielindë seeks Valandil on this. “Valandil, I have made my case, and perhaps I have persuaded you to heed my advice. But there is one more concession I ask of you. If we are to fight the orcs, I have need of a general, one who might lead a war interrupted by our absence. Khraelyn, Son of Calin, is the one. He is our hope against the orcs. But it is many cycles now since Khraelyn has heeded by council. I bid you take your case to him, and convince him of the strength of our league. Khraelyn has long given up war, though he was once our greatest warrior. It would be an earnest of your good will, as bearer of these evil tidings, if you approached him yourself, with your fellows beside you.”

Mabul grows more and more frustrated. "Every time we complete a quest, another is begged." Yngvarr agrees to go up the Mountain with Valandil. "After that," he decrees, "our fellowship is done. My loyalty is to my people." Mabul considers Yngvarr's point, and partly agrees. The company supports Valandil and will follow him up the mountain.

The princess finishes:

“Khraelyn remains in secret atop the mountain, mediating at the foot of the Dragon Throne. Ages ago, more than fifty cycles, he ascended the mountain along the Path of Remembrance. He must hear the tales that I have heard today, from your lips; most strange of all, the tale of Tharthammon and the Fall of Llómydien, for these will greatly interest him. Master Khraelyn does not desire strength or skill of arms, nor valor—such things no longer have any hold on his mind. But he is not idle! He seeks understanding, and you—six set out from Edion—know better than any the threat facing the world.”

“I bid you take your companions along the path, and climb to the foot of Yvalril, the Dragon of Autumn, who sits upon the Throne of Seasons. There you will find Khraelyn. Bring him down the mountain, and the elves shall answer your call with war.”

The fellows retire while the elves continue their arguments in court. They take an evening's rest in the House of Calmcacil. Alas, the Bottled City remains in their care. "I will take it to Thariom. That is my oath," affirms Valandil. "I will see it done."

17. Path of Remembrance

The heroes are refreshed on elven wine, and find themselves in a more jolly mood than usual. Over the night, their clothing and armor were washed and repaired by the elves of Calmcacíl’s house, and their weapons sharpened. Enchantments were renewed and improved. Furthermore, during the course of their leisure, the elves of Aldoril sent various gifts to Calmcacíl’s house. There are baskets of elven breads and wildberries, and kegs of elven wine filled with fragrance. There are personal gifts from each House. A note rendered in gold ink reads:

“The Elves are willing to endure this chance, if the power of Tharthammon may be broken, and the fear of his dominion be taken away for ever.”

House Calmcacil provides for their son a pair of enchanted slippers (Slippers of Battledancing). House Elentar provides Mabul with a voluminous, dark red cloak, trimmed with gold threaded designs (Battle Cloak of Elentar). House Horyll (Erelar Hoethennion’s Son) provides Narntay with three feathers plucked from the dragon-birds Aerdrie, Praxis, and Yvoosl (Feathers of the Dragons). House Celedhrond provides Yngvarr with an elaborate headband sewed of gold thread and the mane hairs of the Primal Lion (Headband of the Lion). House Lanissar provides Nimlinor with a ring wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones (Ring of Spell Battle). And Arangor provides Nerenethos with a gossamer-stranded cloak of thistledown; the colors of twilight shimmer in the folds (Cloak of the Eventide).

When they are ready to depart, Vondir leads them through the mansions of Aldoril to the base of a narrow path, climbing upward into the mountain. Overhead, the mist about the mountain is glamorous with eternally dissolving opal, swirling and revealing brief glimpses of the dizzying realm above.

"Who knows what you will find on the Path of Remembrance?" warns Vondir. "Not even the very wise can foretell… Be bold, but wary! Keep up your hearts.”

Amicus goes bravely forward, climbing the steps.

They ascend, many hundreds of steps, through wild ravines and escarpments. The path is creviced and chasmed, and partly blocked with debris of avalanches and lightning-eaten rock. Below the fellows, the verdant vales of Aldoril hover like a fair mirage, and the shining of the elven domes are as morning cumuli, nestled amid the crags and waterfalls.

Courageously, you pass through the mist. The sky above is not the low-arching, turquoise heaven of Edion, but a vague, dreamlike, remote atmosphere, full of an infinite luminescence, like the roof of a world beyond time and space. Everywhere there is light; but you see no sun in the cloudless sky. It is as if the sun, the moon, and the stars had been molten together ages ago and had dissolved into some ultimate, eternal light. Strangely, you notice that you cast no shadow on the rocky ground, despite the proliferation of light.

Far above, imperceptibly far away, there glimmers the white head of tall Istalion, the last peak of the world. And seated atop this peak is Yvalril, Dragon of Autumn, though you can see neither the wyrm nor the throne from this height.

Torrents of fire and lightning rain down from the mountaintop. Yet a cryptic silence broods over all things. Oblivious to mortal fatigue, of peril and disaster that might lie before them, the fellows continue on.

~ Neren Encounters Syra Moonflower ~

Amid the strange ardor of the ascent, the company passes through a grove of trees, tall and slim as the great woods of Ithiltaen. The very banks and precipices of the mountain are heavily arrassed with low-hanging bloom, like a frail mantle that summer has flung upon the desolate rocks. Unaccountably, a soft balmy air begins to blow, and they are transported visually to the groves of Fil-Garil.

Seated upon a tree branch, you see an unexpected sight: A creature, small and bright, with lavender skin and pink hair, all a-glitter with faerie dust. She nibbles on a beetle, and stretches contentedly, displaying a set of gauzy wings, fluttering behind her—sheer like gossamer, all asparkle with every color of the rainbow. In between bites of the insect, she hums to herself softly…

Neren chokes back a few tears, despite a strong feeling that this is obviously some illusion, some trick of the mountain. His voice breaking, he asks, "Aren't those bugs nasty to eat?" recalling a conversation he had a lifetime ago about the relative merits of bug eating.

"Neren!" cries Syra. "We were looking for you!" The pixie flits about excitedly, her face flush. "Ius and Gotri will be so pleased. Maybe not Verudwan."

"What... are... we doing here?" he asks. Neren turns to Valandil and finds him standing beside the others. "Is this real?" "Be brave, Brother," comes the reply.

"You are a naughty little boy to have run away like that," scolds Syra.

"I'm not a little boy!"

"Well, you are taller, but maybe human boys grow differently."

Succumbing to the scene, Neren introduces everyone to Syra Moonflower. "Hello!" chirps the pixie fondly. Neren is especially proud to introduce his brother Nim. "I... I didn't even know I had one," he mewls. When Neren was eight—when he knew Syra—he didn't know Nimlinor.

"It's been eighteen years since I've seen you, Syra. So much has happened, so much has gone wrong... but I haven't forgotten you... how could I?"

Syra giggles.

Neren is swayed to recite a poem that he wrote for her, long ago. The fellows heard "In Ithiltaen..." back in Granitehome, performed before the gnomish god-statue of Rill Cleverthrush, but Syra has never heard it, nor any of Neren's professions of love. She smiles warmly as he recites. Theatrically, but tenderly, he touches her lips with his finger as he speaks the line, "And her lips paid the prince’s bill." Neren takes in the illusory forest, looking round in ironic humor, when he finishes, "In Ithiltaen forever still."

Neren catches himself believing in the illusion and rejects it. "This isn't real," he laments. "You're not real."

"Well, I'm think I'm pretty real, Neren. And you did just touch my lips." Syra looks at Mabul, telling him, "Neren is a very unhappy adult. He was much cheerier once." Mabul somberly says, "He misses you."

"No... Syra. You don't understand! You... died. You took the Golden Key from Gotri..."

"How did you know about that?!" alarms Syra.

"...it's the key that ends the world," continues Neren, "...you went to talk to Grandal and Talqavist and they told you to free the orcs out... but you didn't know Vela-Shiven was there... no one did! And you went to Thard-Harr, or that Shargol-Bogra place, or wherever... you and Verudwan and Ius and Queen Lulea—I've got her wings!—and then you... died... in that terrible place..."

"Neren, I'm right here. My dear! You're acting strange!"

Neren pleads with her. "It's true, Syra! How else could I know about the Golden Key and what it does and what you planned to do with it?" Before she can respond, Neren starts to believe in the credibility of the scene. "If this is real... if this is even partly real..." Neren grabs her shoulders. "...don't do it! I don't care who tells you to use the Key—Talqavist or Grandal or the Artifex—but don't! Take it and hide it somewhere it will never be found!"

Syra starts to think through the situation, revealing that a second key exists. "You remember my paints? The ones you stole?"

"Nuh-uh! You gave them to me!" denies Neren.

"...I used them to make a copy. I had to give it to Snirsk..."

"You mean... there's a copy of the Golden Key somewhere?"

"Yes, if Snirsk still has it..."

"So... if I had that key... I could lock up the orcs again..."

Syra nods mischievously. "But, Neren... if you didn't know about Snirsk's key, and I didn't know about you getting old, and we're both here to tell each other about these things... isn't it possible that I'm still alive somewhere? Maybe in Shargol-Bogra?"

"I would tear down Creation to save you," he confesses, tears streaming down his face. Boldly, Neren admits to Syra what he's been waiting for eighteen years to say. "I love you Syra Moonflower."

To which she replies, "I love you, little boy."

Syra fades quickly into a hueless dust, a flight of gleaming atoms, that rise and fall on Neren's face. Then there is nothing, and the fairy-tinted flowers change also, crumbling swiftly, falling beneath flurries of white snow. A wind carries away the tall slim trees and the low-hanging bloom. There is a flash of lightning, a gust of fire. The timbers fall away down the mountainside, like the wreck before a flood, and vanish amid the universal, whirling flakes of Syra’s body.

"I'm not a little boy," mumbles Neren, crying. These things, Neren deems, are memories of yesterday and tomorrow, of things written and things unspoken.

There is no sound. The fellows stand, once again, upon a narrow path through the black rock, with innumerable precipices and chasms above, beneath and on all sides.

Filled with a high wonder, but powerless to surmise the riddle of the situation, they continue afoot.

"I'm not a little boy."—Neren

~ Mabul Encounters Dasari ~

Further along the path, the fellows go through a narrow crevasse. The ground here is covered with a steady trail of carcasses and flies. Most of these bodies are human, swarthy dark Abishaim men, brutally maimed. Mabul encounters here the corpse of Gola Par, the Idreshim mercenary, cleaved in twain, his legs in stockings, turned round and splattered red, his torso separated in shredded brocade. Near at hand is Octam Mezati, the Predicant of Matravus, with a look of horror upon his dry lips.

The trail of corpses continues through the deep fissure. A dog barks incessantly, coming from a gap ahead.

“Betu! Be quiet or you’ll sleep outside!” comes a voice.

The dog ignores the master’s threat and continues to bark all the louder, straining against a tether.

They emerge into a muddy hollow, lit by starlight. A black and gray spotted dog is tethered to a wagon. The line is taught, as the dog strains in their direction, barking loudly. Amicus snarls and barks back ferociously.

Seated on the ground beside the wagon is an old man tending a campfire. His skin is a dark red tone, parched like an old scroll. Two mules are tethered to a stump nearby.

“It’s settled then, you’re sleeping outside in the mud and cold tonight!” disciplines the old man.

"Dasari, you could have warned me," says Mabul under his breath.

The old man looks up and sees Mabul. "So you have decided to join the living again, Mabul, none too soon I would say.”

Mabul stands motionless. Reliving this encounter with Dasari proves too profound.

“Come in… sit by the fire. You are a horrible sight. If Betu hadn’t found you when she did, I dare say you might not have made it.”

"What are you doing here?" asks Mabul, suddenly overwhelmed. "What are these bodies?"

“Dear Elai!” exclaims Dasari, rolling his eyes. “The man returns from the dead and all he can think to ask about are the damned dead. They are the bodies of the people you have killed to get here.” Motioning, he adds, "Drink this. Sit down.” He offers Mabul a flask of water.

"Why are you here, Dasari?"

“I am only tarrying here awhile. I was on my way to Atân… that’s a cloister a few days from here. I was going to take something to their garden.” He pauses. “If you could take it for me, that would give me back most of the time I lost finding you.”

"A plant," Mabul says to himself. He knows what Dasari wants of him.

“Now if you say no, I understand, so don’t think you have to or anything.”

Mabul reaches over to accept the offering.

“It’s just a plant they’ve been wanting for a while... I happened to come across one. It will look nice in their garden.” Dasari still holds the pot.

“Realize, Mabul… if you do this, you will finally be free. But let me explain why I have really asked you to go to Atân...

“I have chosen you for a role in something far greater than anything you have ever imagined...”

“You will see the deaths of thousands of innocent beings.

“You will see the wings of unconquerable death itself.

“And you will be stalked by an Enemy so powerful, so terrible, that even Carceri cannot contain his power.

“You will return one day to Argentaamn, and your people will go free. As their leader, your decisions will decide their fate.

“Your word will send thousands to their death and the waiting arms of Nilzabar.

“…but they will die for you willingly and a part of your soul with thrill at this.

“But being wholly untried by the ordeals of dominion, you will seek the counsel of your courtlings, and will be ill advised by them.

“The troubles of your realm will multiply upon you; uncurbed by authority; your enemies will gather like vultures behind your back.

“Your friends will leave this world, and see another one completely destroyed and reduced to nothingness, like ash in the furnace.

“And on your shoulders, you will carry the burden of saving all of Edion from the same fate.”

Dasari holds the little potted plant out for him to take. “Will you take it?”

"At least you have warned me," says Mabul. The great warrior stumbles for words. He knows the encounter shall soon end and Dasari will go. Choking back tears, he adds, "I'd be honored, friend," taking the plant.

Dasari stands up. “I’m sorry Mabul. I would love to stay and reminisce, but Betu and I must be getting along. We have a long way to travel before we get home. You and your friends enjoy the fire, while it lasts.”

The old man lashes the mules to the wagon and climbs atop the bench. With a swift lash, he lurches away, and is gone.

When the last embers of the fire have gone down, Mabul and the others find that they are once again standing on a narrow path, among bleak ravines and savage scarps. A cataract of pure elemental water flows nearby, disappearing into the bottomless gloom. Mabul holds a very real plant in his hands.

"You could have warned me."—Mabul

~ Yngvarr Encounters Yngvildir ~

On every hand the rocks grow sterner and wilder, but the fellows struggle along the trail, ever higher.

At length, the fellows come over a high pass and into a depression. Down the pass, like some enormous dragon of glittering ice, there pours the vanguard of a glacier. At the base of the glacier is a frozen lake. Chilling winds blow down onto the lake and freeze in midair.

A man is standing in the middle of the lake, many hundreds of yards away. There is a boat behind him, a simple lash of timbers piercing the ice.

“Yngvarr!” roars the man, his voice echoing across the valley. "Yngvildir’s Son! Do you not hear me approaching?”

The company goes out onto the frozen lake. The man calling them has a heavy beard and wild hair, frosted over with snow. In the boat behind him is a dead man. "I am Jagildir," he announces. "I have brought your father from the Great Hall.”

The party steps hesitantly forward. Jagilidir holds out his hands. “Go to the boat, Yngvarr… but not the far-dwellers. I don’t know their lineage." Clutching his battleaxe, he emphasizes, "These men are not hearth-companions!”

Yngvarr goes to the boat and peers inside. There lays his father, Yngvildir, who died before he was born. He is a strong man, with a heavy beard, a wogathir… a woodcutter. He was buried in warm clothes lined with wolf fur, and there is an axe in the boat beside him. He is dead, but he looks at Yngvarr with intense eyes.

“Are you my son?” asks the dead man, straining to move his lips. Yngvildir's eyes barely focus. He doesn't have the strength to lift his axe.

"Father!"

Yngvildir grabs his son by the collar and brings his face down into the boat, so close his beard whiskers scratch his face. “What is your name, Son?”

"Yngvarr, Father!"

“What have you done with your life, Yngvarr? What kind of a man are you?!”

"I've wasted so much time."

"Are you vagathir or wogathir?”

"Wogathir..."

“Are you fierce in battle?! Have you vowed your kreega to a strong man’s daughter? Does she willingly obey you?”

Shamefully, Yngvarr admits he is not married. "Forgive me father! I've wasted so much time. I've spent years thinking when I should have been acting. Forgive me!"

Yngvildir clutches Yngvarr more forcefully. The strength is returning to him, and his eyes are wild. "You are the Tooth-wearer of Horsgald! Have they sung to you the story-son of Furis and Kjord? Do you not know your duty?!" Yngvildir speaks of the old myth of the Frost Giant Kjord and the Crow Father, who are enemies. It tells of Kjord's efforts to hunt the Crow Father, and the Idreshim’s efforts to trap the giant in an ice cavern. No warrior could destroy the giant, so they settled for trapping him. Yngvildir recounts:

“When the battle-slaves killed the beast, they smashed the teeth. The old gray-hairs took the teeth to their halls… it was all they had left of their god, who holds the mighty in favor.

“But the grim-hearted being became jealous, when he learned that the battle-slaves had slain the Furis-Beast, and not he. He escaped the ice prison, and hunted the Idreshim for their teeth. The grey-hairs wept and seethed, but did nothing.”

“Now Kjord is the master of teeth, and counts them all his trophy. All but this one on your neck.”

Yngvarr palms the tooth and feels its power.

“Listen to me, son. Kjord does not fear any sword storm from our people. He enjoys himself, killing and feasting, and expects no fight with Idreshim. The storm comes, and now all friends should gather together. Hasten to Kjord with your armor-net sewn by smiths. Go to the Cave with Blue Pillars. You will destroy a family of giants, and avenge the Beast.

“For this day, have patience in each woe, hastened with bravery. The teeth do not belong to Kjord. Kill this foe of the people, take up the Teeth, and you shall prove a long-lasting relief to the Idreshim, a help to mancutters and woodcutters. Kill the giant, and be my son. If you are my son."

"I will find Kjord, Father!" vows Yngvarr. "I will bring the Beast back to our people! You will be proud." He is full of emotion, red-faced and wild-eyed like his father.

Jagildir returns to the boat. “I will take Yngvildir back to the Great Hall now. When the snow is red, I will come back for you.” Yngvildir lays down in the boat, a gruff look on his face.

Jagildir seats himself and pushes off. Yngvarr watches as his father is borne away into the mist and snow.

When he loses sight of the vessel, he finds himself standing in a bleak chasm. A chill trickle of icy water falls from the ledge overhead, but the glacier is gone. Yngvarr's companions are not far behind, at the edge of a narrow slope.

"I've wasted so much time."—Yngvarr

~ Narntay Encounters Thameera ~

The fellows cannot recall the circumstances of their departure from Aldoril. They are conscious only of an emotion such as impels the moth to pursue a wandering flame. None among them can picture the aim and end of their pursuit along the Path of Remembrance, nor the goal of the weird quest that draws them. But a dread grows in Narntay and Nimlinor, tangible to all.

The path turns among lessening ridges, and they come to a rugged wall, forbidding further progress.

In the base of the sheer wall yawns a cavern, narrow and darksome. It seems that the rock has opened only a little while before their coming, for the lines of cleavage are clearly marked, and the cracks made in the surrounding surface are unclaimed by the icicles than hang elsewhere.

Wondering and curious, Amicus runs off into the inviting gloom of the cavern. "Amicus, get back here!" orders Narntay, but the dog goes ahead.

"Be strong, Brother," consoles Valandil. Narntay goes ahead along the Path of Remembrance.

Beyond the mouth he is swallowed by a rough-arched passage that pitches downward like the gorge of some monstrous dragon. An ever-deepening oppression falls over him. Striving ahead, Narntay comes to a shelf overlooking a vast, bottomless chasm. He almost falls sideways into the emptiness, for the opening in the rock is far wider than he can cross; and out of it comes a reek so foul, and a sense of lurking malice so intense, that he reels.

Across the width and height of the abyss, on the far side, is a shelf he cannot reach. To his dismay, he see on the far ledge a pair of monstrous and abominable eyes. It is Thameera. The great knobbed joints of her legs sway above her back. Hanging from a thread beside her is Amicus, woven into a cocoon-like mass of sticky fibers, thickened layer upon layer with evil growth.

She speaks to Narntay, her mouth dripping with venom. “I, who am Thameera, consider that you are a renegade, Narntay God-Slave, who will upset my master’s plans.”

"Amicus!" cries Narntay. "Damn you, Bitch!"

“I have watched you at whiles," burbles Thameera, "your wanderings and plots. But now, you have stuck your nose out too far! If you should dare come to Thariom's shore, if you persist in opening the Bottled City, you shall see what comes to him who sets his foolish webs before the feet of the Treader!”

Narntay is consumed with rage, and yet powerless. "Release my friend, now! I will smite you, lying Bitch! I will not abandon my path, and you will die. I will kill you!"

"Then I will take this dog," answers the Travesty, "… this token of your questionable faith. For Geyon has no power in Thariom, and you will find there no road to follow. Let us see you follow a path that isn't paved.”

"Geyon Most Journeyed!" begs Narntay. "Here me now!" Narntay attempts to walk on air, a feat he has managed often with Geyon's blessing. But his prayer goes unanswered. Screaming, howling, he is powerless to help Amicus.

Thameera revels in her victory. “All the empire is in my thrall! All the lands of the Azalim are mine forever, solely, until Tharthammon claims them in tithe. Least of all you, Narntay God-Slave, to disobey me! Now go back to Edion."

Sobbing, Narntay falls to his knees. "I will destroy you, lying Bitch!" Narntay's companions file in behind him and see Thameera briefly. Her face is twisted with amazement and anger to the likeness of some wild beast. Rage fills her and her mouth slavers, and shapeless sounds come strangling from her throat. She gives a great cry, and withdraws her bulk from the cliff and disappears into the abyss, taking Amicus with her.

"Amicuuuuuus!!!" screams Narntay, hurling himself over the ledge. But he is stopped, somehow. Did his friends stop him? Did Geyon?

Narntay mumbles curses to Geyon. He feels betrayed on a level few Men ever experience. It transcends the betrayal of a lover, or the falseness of one's kin. "You took from me my friend! I have ever been your servant... I've humbly done your will and walked your path. And you lead me to this?"

Neren puts his hand on Narntay's shoulder. "Maybe, friend, it is time we guided you."

Narntay casts his walking stick into the chasm. "Damn you, Geyon! Damn you!"

A wind from Hibernus blows fiercely through the cavern. The howls of Amicus are the last thing heard as the wind is sucked down into the chasm, and swallowed forever. The rift closes abruptly beneath their feet.

The fellows find themselves alone in a tunnel. Dram blinks his eyes. "Where did the dog go?"

"Damn you, Geyon!"—Narntay

~ Nimlinor Encounters Moxirth ~

The tunnel goes deeper and deeper into the mountain. Nimlinor strides purposefully ahead of the others, suspecting what awaits him. Narntay is helped along by Neren and Valandil. Without his walking stick, he leans too heavily to one side and stumbles frequently.

From the cavern’s creviced floor there springs a stunted shard. It is the size of a boulder, glistening, blindingly, like a stalagmite of ice. This is the Shard of Phandiom, the only shard cast off in the making of the First World.

Mighty energies unfurl as Nimilinor approaches it, filling the cave with brooding energy. Clouds of multicolored magic swirl and sparkle in the air. The bare earth beneath the giant shard is cracked and creviced, and constantly changing. Everyone is blinded, save Nimlinor.

As Nimlinor gazes upon the Shard of Phandiom, he shudders. His mind fills with an insufferable power, a cumulative ability to do anything, to become anything. He feels the delirium of a mad ascent to dizzying heights, seeing things never intended for human cogitation. Piercingly, he looks straight into the mind of the Artifex.

Námion flares to life and burns brightly. The staff is shaled by intense heat, and becomes unbearably hot. But he cannot let it go. The black shard-stone convulses in its setting, mutating, changing before his eyes.

Nim realizes at this instant, that he has the power to change Námion, to make it into another shard. Any shard he can imagine, with any powers. For many years, Námion has been his mentor. It has made him the man he is today, for better or worse. What would he change? Gazing into the Shard of Phandiom, he assesses his life. Is he glad of Námion, or regretful? Has it made him a better wizard? A better man? A better brother?

"It has given me resolve," he says, recounting the shard's virtues. "Ambition. Power. Determination." He has learned strength from having to rely on himself. He has chosen a path less taken and flourished under it. To deny Námion would be to deny himself, for they are one. Confidently, he decides there is nothing to change.

Nimlinor is just about to turn back, when a wizard dressed in blue and purple robes steps from behind the Shard of Phandiom. His sable mane and beard have a feral, animalian appearance, and his long finger bones curve claw-like from his wrist, set firmly around a staff. It is Moxirth the Mad, fiend-begotten son of the demon Relzus and the Abnoctim witch Tuzargaman. Moxirth bows before him, and keeps his head low when he speaks.

“Master, the war against Tharthammon goes badly.”

"Report," says Nimlinor.

“I know you do not like spies, Master, but here are the marks of a conspiracy: Ereaxos has infiltrated the warren and stolen the plans for the Grandal Device.”

"What is the Grandal Device?"

"My lord, my Archon," explains Moxirth, confused, "your ingenious plan to create an elf army to counter Tharthammon’s orcs, using Grandal’s acorn… the one you got from that wretch Valandil.”

"That's a good plan. Of course. Continue."

"All the companies of the Cáladain are yours to command, save the traitorous Idreshim, who hail the warrior Yngvarr. But the lands below Kandor, and all of the South are your tributary. And the Abishaim have rebuilt for you the Tower of Llómydien, for they are strong and servile. But soon, when Tharthammon is defeated, you shall be master of the East too. Were it not for your father, we should dwell there now!”

"You tell me what I already know."

"Master," poses Moxirth, nervously. "Perhaps Nerenethos knows something. Shall I have him brought up from his cell?”

Nim smiles. "Yes."

Moments later, Neren appears on the scene. But it is the real Neren, the one who followed Nimlinor up the mountain, and Moxirth is gone. "Nim, what's going on?" asks Neren. "Why is it so bright?"

"I saw my future and it doesn't look good for you."

"Re-ally? But was it a real future or just another vision? I mean, maybe it's like the Plane of Shadow and we're only seeing what might happen."

"I think this is the real future. You were imprisoned."

"Do you think, first of all, that you would imprison me? Do you think, second of all, that I couldn't get out?"

Nimlinor shrugs.

The lights die down. In the distance, at the end of a long and narrow tunnel, a light shines through, revealing a way back to the mountainside.

"I saw my future and it doesn't look good for you"—Nimlinor

18. Throne of Dragons

In the mad hope of eventual escape, the fellows scurry and pick up their pace. They reach the tunnel’s end and climb out onto a narrow ledge. Here the path steepens perilously, climbing up by the stair-like projections of the stone. There is nothing below, except a vast abyss. Overhead is a great firmament of coruscating energy. The air is windless, but it weighs upon them as if burdened with the wings of giant birds.

Valandil moves purposeful upward. The elf feels a strong sense of guilt about putting his friends through this trial. What was learned? At what cost?

The others cling to the rock wall, desperate to maintain their footing. The slightest misstep would send them plummeting into another world. Narntay thinks only about his abandonment by Geyon. "I miss my friend," he mutters, over and over. "I miss my friend." Nim considers the Grandal Device for the first time... his own idea, someday. Nim's brother is more practical. He thinks about falling, and hoping that the descent would last long enough for him to obtain a feather fall spell from the Spellpool. As they ascend, Yngvarr gains confidence in Dendwaru. "He speaks the truth about Thameera," says the northman. "We must finish this errand before I can free my people." Before walking the Path of Remembrance, Mabul knew he was going to leave the Fellowship with Yngvarr. Now, he is not so sure.

At the top of the long stair, the company emerges into a bright radiance. The heavens lapse illimitably into golden distance under the measureless arch of the sky-vault. The light is almost too much to bear, and cannot be looked directly upon.

The path curves round the spire of Mount Istalion, passing over a ledge. Here the trunks of mighty trees have been torn from their roots and deposited circle-wise in the form of a giant nest. A bedding of tall grass-leaves carpets the floor, crunching underfoot.

Bulking in portentous menace, like the cumuli of a thunderstorm, comes Eagle, the Primal raptor [pic]. Emerging from behind the great peaks, the giant bird assumes a sudden visibility in the air. It screams above, eyeing their position as they cross the eerie.

"Who is this?" asks Eagle, who is not in the habit of speaking to its prey.

"Neren the Fey and companions. We are just passing through. Don't fear, Eagle... we won't touch anything." Everyone else hears Neren making chirping and clucking noises.

"That may be well," says Eagle, "but I suffer no trespassers to my home. And I am so hungry."

Neren rolls his eyes. "Eagle, we mean no trespass, but I assure you we are not morsels." "Is everything hungry here?"

Yngvarr and Valandil cross the nest and begin climbing over the opposite side.

"The fire of my appetite is kindled even hotter!" cries Eagle, now swooping on Neren. "I will seize you by the noise, and so also with your companions!" Eagle's talons extend, but just as she grabs Neren his new elven cloak conceals him and she slips harmlessly by, wheeling round.

"Are you sure you can get her to let us pass?" asks Nim. "I have every confidence," says Neren.

"Ozion, I demand you bend to my will and bind my enemy!" commands Narntay. "Obey me!" Ozian heeds the priest's command. Tendrils of air entangle Eagle, but she is strong and escapes.

Now attacked on many fronts, eagle looses feathers from her comb, and they transform into dire eagles… perfect specimens of eagle-kind in every aspect. The fellows are assailed everywhere by swooping and diving birds. Instinctively, Narntay reaches for his staff. Realizing he no longer has it, he pulls out a dagger to defend himself.

"When it's time, you will have food, Eagle! Call off this pointless attack! We are sheltered by Azandoraft, who is our friend."

"Has the Old Fool given you permission to pass?' asks Eagle, coming at Neren.

"He brought us to the Mountain!"

Eagle is not deterred. She grabs Neren and carries him off into the sky. The other eagles fly round their progenitor, picking at the Neren-morsel.

Nimlinor accesses the Spellpool, drawing for a spell to summon a monster.

"I finally understand the madness of Yôzar," cracks Narntay. "Shall I preach to the depraved? The senile?!"

Neren cannot squirm free (and, if he could, he would plummet forever). The lesser birds break off to attack the fellows again. Eagle continues to nip at Neren.

"Perhaps I should preach to Dorgal, Lurker that I am!" rails Narntay, "or would you have me smash skulls for Cor? Is that what you want, Ozian?!" Narntay's wrath is shifted currently from the Minister Geyon to the Elder Ozian.

While the warriors hold back attacking eagles, Nimlinor finishes his spell. A celestial buffalo appears in the middle of the nest, a bit confused.

"See!" screams Neren. "See! A buffalo is much tastier than I!"

Eagle's eyes widen. "Well! The peace made is of great benefit to both sides. Maybe we will not exterminate each other," declares Eagle, putting Neren down. The other eagles break off to join Eagle in killing the buffalo.

"Perhaps Gentle Sif the Merciful! Would I take up her cause? For mercy!" Narntay is muttering to his gods and walking in shallow circles. Everyone else is now moving swiftly to the nest wall. Valandil leaps up to the top and begins helping the others over.

Unfortunately, the eagles kill the buffalo very quickly. The corpse disappears. "I think we just made them angry," warns Nimlinor.

"Ozion, I require your breath beneath my feet... now!" Again, Narntay commands Ozian and succeeds in casting a spell. He air walks up over the wall.

Eagle comes back to Neren. "You have treated me a fool, little boy!" Cruel talons lash Neren. The other eagles renew their attacks. The nest wall is a-swarm with swooping birds and flashing blades.

"I've had enough of you animals and your hunger!" says Neren. "Learn to hunt!" Nimlinor turns to his enervating magic, blasting Eagle with strength-draining rays. The fellows become the aggressors. "I call upon Hibernus itself! I need no intercessor!" cries Narntay. "Grant me the power to smite my enemies!!" Bolts of heavenly lightning arc down from the sky, smiting the eagle-spawn. One dies on the spot. The others are slain quickly by Mabul and Valandil. Knowing the gravity of fighting Eagle, the fellows attempt to subdue the Primal. Nimlinor misses Eagle with a bolt, striking Mabul and sickening him.

"The sky itself mocks you, Eagle!" barks Neren. "It was folly to attack Neren the Fey!" Neren finds and opening and saps Eagle. The great bird is rendered unconscious, falling in a heap upon the ground.

"I apologize for making you sick," says Nim to Mabul. "We are even," says the barbarian.

“The gods have truly abandoned me," Narntay grieves.

Passing beyond Eagle’s eerie, the path continues, winding along the uppermost peak of Mt. Istalion. Flakes of fire appear to descend and melt in the rippling air. It seems now, as they go on, that every step is perilous.

After a time, Neren becomes convinced they are making pointless circles around the mountain spire, despite the sensation they are climbing. He marks a rock. They make a full revolution around the spire and find the mark coming round. Nimlinor suggests that everyone sit down and have a smoke of the pimmerweed, to promote new ideas. "Ah, no," objects Neren. "I was kind of saving that for when we killed Tharthammon."

Valandil goes on ahead, alone. The Throne of Dragons was never meant for the eyes of Men, he reasons. Finding no objection, the humans sit by the mark (a smiley face) and gaze out to the East. From here they can see all the way to Edion. Looking Eastward, they see the armies of Tharthammon marching across Aenor. The treemen do battle in the Forest of Calais, and the Cáladain reinforce their defenses at Shevarash. Abishaim from the South enter the city and give their oaths to the Cáladain. Looking northward, they see the Empire of Azalan, idle and inactive, quietly awaiting the deathknell, and beyond that to snow-stricken Kandor, where the Idreshim go aimlessly.

"The gods have cut me off," says Narntay, "perhaps for my own anger."

“Perhaps they want you to stand on your own two feet for a time," consoles Mabul. "You call it an 'agreement,' the relationship between Men and Gods. Now maybe you will find your agreement, instead of following them blindly."

"I feel so lonely... they have always been there for me."

Neren opens his shirt to show Narntay the hand print on his chest. "You are not alone, Narntay."

"It is the way of things that gods are fickle as people," says Yngvarr. "Doubting them is better."

Meanwhile, Valandil finds that he able to advance. Rounding the final stair, he steps with awe and fear onto the Throne of Dragons.

A cataract of silver rays pours down from a high-seated dragon: a reptilian wonder whose scales look as if they had been sculpted from pure metal. A smooth, shining plate of silver forms its face, and high frills rise over its head and continue down its neck, to the tip of its tail some 300 feet behind it—many times the size of Malstryx. It is the mightiest of all creatures, more mighty than all the creatures of man’s imagining.

The dragon draws its immense wings overhead, shielding you from the galactic energy of the Citadel of Eternity, poised directly overhead.

The citadel sends forth lightning to clash upon the mountain. In shades of shrieking red, hurtling black, and brilliant yellow, the cosmic forces underlying the multiverse make themselves known to you.

You feel the weight of eons crushing you down. And though you cannot see the citadel above you, shaded as you are by the dragon’s wings, you feel its proximity. It is real beyond all that men deem reality: and yet it seems unattainable, part of an after-mirage on the desert of time.

You are stayed by the strangeness of it all, by the sense of weird and preternatural power which infuses the whole landscape.

Recovering, Valandil sees before the dragon’s feet a lean elf, attired in veils of moon-flame. His pale eyes, pouring an icy rapture into his veins, regard Valandil enigmatically [pic].

Valandil approaches Khraelyn. "Milord..."

Khraelyn speaks. There is something in his speech of time and its mystery, of things that lie beyond time. “Who are you? A leaf caught in a whirlpool, perhaps. A feather in the wind.”

Valandil gives his ancestry. "I am last of the Llómyd-Landil. Your father, Calin... has fallen in battle.

Khraelyn's eyes kindle with slow fire.

"Master Steelmoon, you are needed," explains Valandil, purposefully. “The orcs are released from Shargol-Bogra. Our people are divided. You alone can command the armies of the elves. The Princess has decreed it."

"My name is Khraelyn Steelmoon," says the mystic, "and I am about to depart the world, not enter into it."

“Nay, Master. There is much to do. Edion needs you... your people need you. I..."

"Valandil Vondir's Son, I have beheld myself in the mirror of eternity, and passed beyond the changes and corruptions of Time. I have seen the all-mighty dragon seated atop the spire, and felt the weird it lays. I am not concerned with such things."

"Queen Padrielindë commands you," enforces Valandil.

"She is no queen, but a princess. Forever a princess."

"Nay, Master Steelmoon. The Elves of Arithras have kept a throne for her. She will sit upon it when the killing is done... the Tenth Evercourt will be called in Edion, if you but rouse and fight."

"I fought. I killed. I followed the Path of Minaith over many enemies. I fought one great battle so terrible the sun itself hid its face from the slaughter—with men and gods, with animals and demons, with swords and chariots. It all comes back to me now." Khraelyn drifts for a moment. "But I have no appetite for killing anymore. I cannot be aroused.”

"I have no appetite for killing anymore."—Khraelyn Steelmoon

"Do it for me, then."

"For you?" scoffs Khraelyn. "You have my permission to wait your doom in Edion. You don't need me for that."

"I have seen much in my short life, and I know now that Edion is worth fighting for... worth living for. I gave my oath to the Llómyd-Landil. You know how binding that is, yet I took a mate and produced a son. The forests of Edion are still a home to us, home to me. And the wide spaces are home to Men. Their time is yet to come, if you help us."

"I will not right history for Men."

"You are the greatest warrior of this or any age," applauds Valandil. "Surely you would trade a moment's bliss to kill orcs."

"Even if I come down the mountain with you, Son of Vondir, we cannot destroy them all. Lest we slay Magrud and stab the Artifex himself, the orcs will come. They won't go back to their trenches when the fighting is done."

"Then we will find a way to share this world, somehow. Orcs and Elves... and Dwarves... we are the Ancient Races. Edion was made for us. But we Elves have a special obligation, for we are the fathers of Men. The old contracts do not apply to Men. They have inherited Edion's future, be it brief, or glorious in days. Your father Calin was willing to sacrifice everything for their inheritance. So it was with Eärithrarion, who taught the Abnoctim."

Khraelyn remembers his long dead friend, Imbarto, and thinks about Imbarto's descendents, who still live in Aenor. And he thinks about his father Calin. "There is a saying among elf-kind, 'Always dying, never dead. Ever ending, never ended.' Queen Sebrilia used to say that to me."

"It is fitting."

“In this age it may well prove that the kingdoms of Men shall outlast the ancient races.”

"Let us go, Master Steelmoon."

19. Leaving Istalion

Valandil comes down the summit with Khraelyn Steelmoon. The humans, still gazing over the East, behold the ancient elf. "I am Nimlinor," introduces the wizard, enthusiastically, "I know all of your stories." Neren had words for Khraelyn, but chooses to let them go. Instead, he tells his brother how he was forced to recount the heroics of Khraelyn Steelmon, ad nauseum, to his captor Snirsk. "I watched you dance," says Valandil, joining in the adulation, "when I was a boy, beneath the Tower in the courtyard." Valandil reports that Calin fought bravely defending the Tower. "I know," says Khraelyn. "I watched from the Mountaintop."

Together, they lead the humans back down to Aldoril. The passage seems like a dream.

In the Mansions of Aldoril, the elves bow low. “Behold! Khraelyn Steelmoon has come! The elves return to Edion!”

Minstrels and loremasters stand up and proclaim the deeds of the Fellowship of Atân, hereafter known as the Fellowship of Edion, and the mansions are filled with divine light. A high celebration is held in honor, the highest ever known since the days of dawning, and when it is finished, there are many partings.

For not all the elves have chosen to return to Edion. Nearly two thirds shall remain in Istalion, and become Grey. The others, the warriors who follow Padrielindë, will go as High Elves to Edion, to join the wood elves and Men in the defense of Edion. These are the Everguard, and Khraelyn is their captain.

At last the day of departure comes, and a great and fair company of elves make ready to sail Eastward to Edion. Steeds are furnished for every man and elf, and a great host rides to sea.

Never had any king such company upon the road as go with the Fellowship of Edion to the Harbor at Istalion. The great host passes through the high canyons and green fields, beyond the house of Ole’ Zandor, all the way to Sapphire Bay. Here elven navigators grow majestic sailing ships from magic acorns. They appear fully formed in the bay, just like the ones in Neren's drawings of Arithras. Valandil touches the acorn given to him by Gwaengail and knows its purpose.

The fellows must decide who will go with Valandil, and who will return to Edion. They have withheld any final decisions on the matter, for dread of parting. "I will go with you to Thard-Harr, if you want to go after your Love," offers Nimlinor to his brother. "If we go to Thariom, I go for power. I hope you choose Love." "I ran from her once," regrets Neren, "I can't do it again." "Valandil, come with us!" they beg. "There are other elves who can take the Bottle to Thariom."

"I have made my oath, Sons of Ereaxos." Valandil is stalwart.

Neren has a change of heart. "If we go to Thariom, we might be able to save everyone. If we go to Thard-Harr, I will probably die, my brother will probably die with me... and I will just find her corpse."

"You don't know that," says Nim. "We could go to Shevarash first and retrieve Pelimë. What better way to find Syra?"

"I've had enough of tears," finalizes Neren. "Nimlinor, Valandil, and I go West to Thariom. We come back together, or not at all."

"We shall miss you," says Yngvarr. "You are among the bravest warriors I have ever known."

"I feel the same of you all. We shall meet again," says Valandil. "My heart is glad that the Tribes are united."

"Take joy in the irony that the Azalim Empire will be assimilated by the Cáladain," encourages Yngvarr.

Narntay, Yngvarr, and Mabul climb aboard the Heart of Oak, a ship in Padrielindë's fleet, bound for Essares-Luminar. “You are not going to be alone out there," comforts Neren as they board. "Everywhere you look, you will find friends, you will find your people.”

“I never thought it would hurt this bad," says Narntay from the deck.

"Love always does."

Nim, Neren, and Valandil watch as the fleet is loaded and launched, and when the harbor is empty, they board the last ship, Heart of Ash, bound for the Trackless Sea and thence to Thariom.

The End.


INTERIM: There are two interim narratives for SOT4-5, The Trackless Sea and Returning to Edion.

Return to SOT3.
Go to SOT5.