Mor turned the cut gem carefully back and forth, letting its facets catch and reflect the firelight. It was not yet past midnight and Rieki had not returned from her hunting expedition into the sparse and scraggy bush of the wasteland surrounding the dragon’s former lair, so he was left to stand guard over his other companion, Cravan, who was snoring loudly from his bedroll on the far side of the camp. Unable to sleep, Mor had volunteered for the first watch. His attention focused on this single artifact recovered from the dragon’s treasure, he pondered the significance of his find.
To call the beast’s collection a hoard would have been too generous. It had consisted mostly of rusted and useless armor, weapons, goblets, cutlery, and the odd candlestick. Unlike what was told in most fables, dragons did not collect treasure; they made their nests like birds or lizards using whatever was at hand. Over the centuries, however, bones and wood turned to dust, iron rusted away to powder, and all that was left behind was the incorruptible precious metals and gems of legend. This dragon had been young and had not been in this lair long, much to the group’s disappointment. Still, the leftovers had yielded enough valuables to fill their pockets and saddlebags, with a couple of gunny sacks full of the better pieces of gear to pawn off at the next blacksmith or merchant they met.
All it had cost them was the life of a farmer’s daughter. Mor felt a little bad for the girl. She hadn’t asked to be named in a prophecy or devoured by a monster, but it was what the Fates had decreed for her. If he and his companions should benefit from her demise, then who were they to question the greater powers that moved the worlds. After all, it would be a shame if the wench had died for nothing. Someone should come out ahead. That was how the universe stayed in balance.
His thoughts brought him back to the stone in his hand. Throbbing like a heartbeat, its power had called to him from the piles of debris. It was a relic of unspeakable power. He would have given his entire share of the treasure just to look at the stone. Indeed, he would have sold his companions into slavery to Alathanii pirates just to know it existed. Mor had expected it to weigh as much as a mountain when he had first reached down to pick it from the eye socket of a human skull, but it was light as though it were carved from bone.
The strange object was unlike anything he had ever witnessed. He twisted it to look at the strange runes inscribed on each of its twenty triangular faces. He couldn’t read them, and that worried him. He knew the something of all the languages written in the Seventeen Kingdoms as well as the basics of all the schools of magic. Even if he could not read the runes, he should at least be able to place them to a particular group, but these marking were completely unfamiliar.
A shadow passed by and snatched the stone from his hand. He yelped in surprise and leaned on his staff as he hurried to stand. He collapsed to the ground, landing face first as the shadow swept the support out from under him.
“What do we have here?” said a sweet elven voice. “Have you been holding out on us?”
“Of course not. Our deal was I get first claim on anything magical that’s not a weapon.”
“That goes for scrolls and staffs and such,” said Rieki. “This looks more like a gem to me.”
“And I saw you stuff that tiara down your bodice, you hypocrite. Now, give that back to me before you hurt yourself.”
“Why?” asked Rieki. “What does it do?”
“I don’t know,” said Mor, “and that should worry you more than anything else.”
The elf giggled and tossed the stone towards Mor, who reached out to grab it but missed. The relic struck the ground and rolled away from them. Mor scrambled after it, trying not to lose sight of it in the darkness. Crawling on his hands and knees, he found it again a few feet away. As he reached to pick it up, however, he found himself staring at the tip of a stranger’s boot. Mor snatched up the stone just before the man lifted him off the ground with one arm.
The soldier wore the emblem and armor of the Westwood Guard, as did his four companions who held their crossbows pointed at him. A fifth clad only in leathers held the reigns of their horses. “These are the ones, all right,” said one of the crossbowmen. “The tracks lead right to this camp, Knight Captain.”
“What have you done with the girl?” The man who held him must have been the one in charge as his armor was well polished and hardly dented, a good sign he was used to giving orders rather than following them.
“What girl?” asked Mor, making a faltering attempt at looking innocent.
“The one you kidnapped from the valley three days ago,” asked the Knight Captain. “Where is she?”
“Oh, that girl,” said Mor. “Dragon got her. Very tragic, that was. Took care of that monster for you, by the way. You’re welcome.”
“Look out.” called out one of the other Guards, raising his crossbow. “He’s got something in his hand.
The Knight Captain knocked the rune stone from Mor’s grasp and it went tumbling away back toward the camp. “We’ll take any treasure they’ve got as compensation for the family. Minus the obligatory taxes, of course.” The man threw Mor down on his backside and then he drew his sword. “Kill the mage first, then bring me the heads of the other two.”
“But which mage?” shouted Mor as he tossed a pinch of powder in the air. Instantly there were four copies of himself, all scrambling to get behind the cover of the nearby boulders. The Guard Captain took a swing at one of them, but it was just an illusion and turned to a cloud of vapor as he touched it. A crossbow bolt struck the rocks just as Mor clambered over them.
“Cravan!” yelled Rieki. “We have company!” She loosed an arrow which struck one of the guards in the shoulder, but the sound of snoring continued unabated from the other side of the fire. She nocked another arrow and let it fly. It struck Cravan’s helmet with a loud clang. “Cravan! You’re missing all the fun.”
“Cravan! Now would be a good time to wake up!” Crouched down behind the rocks, Mor sent out a sheet of fire that drove the men back and spooked their horses. He ducked down just in time to miss another bolt to the head, but now he was down to just two mirror images of himself. Two of the crossbowmen were keeping Rieki pinned behind a tree, but the remaining two soldiers and the Knight Captain had drawn their swords and were flanking Mor’s position behind the rocks. They would soon be upon him.
Suddenly, the soldier’s horses went wild and broke free, dragging the squire away into the woods. A monstrous hand emerged into the edge of the firelight and grabbed the Knight Captain by the torso, lifting him up like a rag doll. Stunned the guards all turned to watch where the bushes started to shake violently and the Knight Captain’s screams could be heard. There was a loud crack and the screams abruptly stopped. A silence spread across the wasteland until Knight Captain’s head flew through the air to land at the feet of one of the soldiers. Then everyone began to scream.
“Ogre!” came the cries from the men as they fired their crossbows blindly into the darkness. The mammoth form of the giant crashed through twisted trees to stand only feet away from where Mor crouched in hiding. He could smell the rot on its breath as it roared in anticipation of battle. Dressed in tattered animal skins, it stood twice as tall as a man with limbs as thick as tree trunks. The ogre raised its foot and stamped on the one of the copies of Mor, which was also curled up in a ball, whimpering. When that illusion vanished, however, the monster turned his attention to the guards. With a sweep of his club, it knocked the two with swords off of their feet. The massive log shattered their ribs and left them dead where they fell.
The remaining two soldiers fired their crossbows at the ogre, but it hardly noticed as the bolts stuck in the folds of its heavy skin. One man stumbled backward as he tried to reload. With four great strides, the ogre was on top of him, bringing its club down with a bone-crushing thud. The last guard had not bothered to reload, but had dropped his crossbow as he fled. The ogre reached down with its free hand and picked up a rock the size of pumpkin. With uncanny accuracy, the stone flew into the back of the man’s head, knocking him to the ground.
The beast roared in triumph and stamped its feet on the ground. Mor peaked over the boulders and readied a fireball spell. Now that the beast was far enough away, he could safely roast it without getting caught in the blast. He was just about to utter the incantation when the ogre sniffed at the air and turned toward Rieki. She hit it in the throat with an arrow and then again in the arm, but it still stormed toward her with astonishing speed. By the time Mor could cast the spell, she would be too close.
A bellow announced the charge of an axe-wielding Cravan as he rushed past Rieki and directly at the ogre. The giant lifted its club to smash him, but before it could swing, Cravan buried his axe deep into the ogre’s crotch. Black blood sprayed the warrior soaking him from beard to boot as his momentum carried him on tumbling between the ogre’s legs. The creature moaned in agony, grabbing futilely at its loins before it dropped to its knees and fell face first into the dirt. Cravan spat on the ogre’s corpse and cursed. “Never pick a fight with me before I’ve had my breakfast.”
Rieki slit the monster’s throat to be sure. She turned to Cravan who had one foot braced against the ogre’s rump as he tried to pry his axe from its pelvis. “What took you so long? Did you have to stop for directions first?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did you not see how I just killed an ogre with one blow? And that’s the thanks I get.”
“Forgiveness,” mocked Rieki, bowing deeply toward him. “We would be lost without you, m’lord.”
“That’s better,” said Cravan. “And if we’re handing out criticism, why did you let this rabble sneak up on us in the middle of the night. Weren’t you supposed to be out hunting for our next meal? I mean how did you miss a squad of guards and a twelve-foot-tall ogre?
“The guards came from behind us, following our trail,” said Rieki. “I didn’t bother to hide it since I didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to follow us from a known dragon lair. I guess I underestimated just how dumb guards can be.”
“Fair enough,” said Cravan. “Most I’ve met barely know which end of a sword to poke you with.”
“It’s the ogre that bothers me,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I didn’t bother scouting for game behind us because we’d already been over that ground and there was nothing bigger than a field mouse. We’re still within the dragon’s territory, and it had picked the area clean. The ogre came from in front of us though, and I should have seen him. It’s not like they’re known for their stealth after all. You can smell them a league away, not to mention all the stomping. What’s more, the dragon should have taken care of it. There’s no way it would have let and ogre run around in its hunting grounds. It’s like it just popped up out of the ground. It’s just so…random."
"That’s the adventurer’s life. One day you’re drinking and wenching, and the next every beastie in the Seventeen Kingdoms wants to hack you to pieces. I wouldn’t have it any other way."
“Speaking of which, you owe Mor a gold piece. That guard captain said to kill him first.”
“Dammit, I never should have made that bet. Everyone always wants to kill the magic-user.”
“It’s because we’re so dangerous,” insisted Mor.
“Yes, they might trip and fall trying to find your hiding place. Where did you get off to?”
“I was just checking that there weren’t any more surprises out there.” Mor rested his hand on the belt pouch where he had stashed the runestone. Feeling the hard lump somehow eased his anxiety. “The squire got away. If being dragged by the horses doesn’t kill him, he’ll lead more soldiers back here. I think we should bury the bodies in the style of the Zan Tan monks and make our way to the border as quickly as possible.”
“Bless those monks anyway for making it a sacrilege to disturb a grave until the flowers planted on it have wilted,” said Cravan. “Even in this wasteland, we should be able to find some kind of blossoming weed. By the time those die, we’ll be halfway to Stoneport. How many bodies have we hidden using that trick?”
“Too many to count,” said Rieki. “And with three extra graves marked with some of the weapons we took, they might think we’re dead as well. At least long enough for us to be away.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a spell for digging graves,” asked Cravan.
“None that I know of,” said Mor.
“Then we better get started. This dirt’s hard and sandy, and it’s going to take the rest of the night to dig eight holes. And then there’s the matter of big and ugly over there.”
“Now that I can do something about,” said Mor. He mumbled an incantation and a fireball lit up the night. It exploded with a whoosh that set the body of the ogre and the surrounding scrub on fire. “There. Now we’ve got some proper light to work by.”
“Humph,” grunted Cravan. “Does anyone else think it’s strange that roasted ogre smells like bacon?”
Zan Tans were a strange and secretive cult who worshiped the Spring Goddess and the Bringer of Death as equals. They wandered out from from their homeland in Pursus trying to gain converts not by preaching but by offering their services to the people for free. Sometimes it would be helping to bring in a crop or acting as a midwife, but they were best known as the caretakers of the dead.
It was said that they placed a ward on each grave, and that if the body was disturbed, the monks would hunt down the grave robber and bury him alive. This made them very popular among the common people who believed that mages and witches regularly raided the bodies of the dead for their own evil needs. Although they rarely engaged in fighting, it was well known that even a novice monk could defeat a seasoned warrior, so few challenged the sanctity of a Zan Tan grave.
According to the rites, the bodies were to be arranged in a circle with the heads pointing toward the center. The leader’s feet were to be facing east and the others were placed in descending rank to his or her right. They put the four soldiers next to the Knight Captain, as the monks would have seen them to be of higher rank than common adventurers, but when it came to arranging the graves for the three of them they couldn’t agree on who was most important.
“I should be next in line,” said Cravan. “Everyone knows it’s the warrior who always leads the group.”
“If the Fistal Mages heard you say that,” said Mor, “they would have their golems strangle you with your own entrails.”
“To the thief princes of Aborjan,” said Rieki, “warriors are the lowest caste. They are regarded as lower than livestock.”
“Well we’re not in Fistal or Aborjan,” said Cravan, “and I did most of the work digging the graves, so I say I’m next.” He thrust the blade of one of their salvaged axes into the first of the three false graves.
“Fine," said Mor. “It doesn’t really matter considering that the graves aren’t even real.”
“Good, then I’m next,” said Rieki and she stuck three arrows into the dirt.
Mor scowled and was about to complain, but Cravan cut him off. “You see. It’s the principle of the thing. Now let’s cook up whatever’s left of the food and we can be on our way to Stoneport as soon as the sun’s up.”
Mor had been waiting for the right opportunity to tell his companions about the stone, but it looked like it was never going to happen. Stoneport was a good place to lay low for a while, but it didn’t have the texts he needed to consult. “I know you we said that we would hole up in Stoneport after this job, but I need to go to Hightower.”
“Hightower?” asked Rieki. “Are you mad? Did you forget the bounty on our heads? Not to mention the personal grudge of Lord Pertwin whom you personally and publicly humiliated not six moons ago?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” said Mor, “but I need to consult the books in the Temple of Light. I found something in that dragon’s lair, something that has me deeply worried.”
“Is this about that little rock in your pocket,” asked Rieki. “It doesn’t look all that special to me.”
“What rock?” asked Cravan. “I’m not risking my neck on a hunch. Especially when we’ve got a good haul to live off of for the next few months.”
“It’s a relic,” said Mor, “and a most powerful one. I believe it was what summoned the ogre.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Cravan. “Even I know you can’t do a summoning that powerful without bunch of candles, a whole lot of chanting, and maybe a chicken to sacrifice.”
“Your knowledge of the art astounds me.” Mor’s eyes rolled back into their sockets. “If I’m right,” he continued in his most serious tone, “then it is even more that. I believe that we may have stumbled across one of the Five Hands of Fate.”
Cravan and Rieki regarded Mor for a moment, and then looked at each other and burst into laughter. “You can’t be serious,” said Rieki. “That’s a children’s story. It’s not real.”
“I am serious,” said Mor, “and the Five Hands of Fate are real, I assure you. It’s just that no one’s seen one for an age. They are well documented in ancient scrolls of Mommaniczar and the oral history of the Mountain Tribes. I’ve seen rubbings of the oldest Dwarven runes and tapestries of the Wawazu. Even your own histories support the existence of the Hands.”
“I never did spend much time in the library,” said Rieki, “but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still wanted fugitives in Hightower.”
“If I’m wrong about this,” said Mor, “I’m willing to give up my share of the dragon hoard.”
They stopped laughing then. “You mean that?” asked Cravan. “You’d give up your entire share if your little piece of rock is not one of the most powerful objects that the gods ever placed on this realm?”
“All right. I’m in. What about you, princess?”
Rieki shrugged and said, “Easy money. Let’s go.”
Mor thrust a long stick into the last of the graves, the Zan Tan mark for a wizard. “It’s settled then. At dawn we make for the Temple of Light.”