Hepalonia maintains a close watch on the spot where the ghost twice spawned while Tric looks around for signs of what happened to Kachen. The food stores still include one of small cask, and the remains of the seared hog are strung up off the ground. The area is bereft of doughnuts, though, which Tric takes as a positive sign. “At least he’s been eating,” he mutters.
Heppa does not take her eyes off the spot near the doorway, but she calls over her shoulder, “Did he leave?”
“One of the two casks is missing… How did he get all of this stuff here in the first place? Did he make multiple trips?” Tric muses aloud, considering some of the small provision boxes.
“Maybe he’s coming back?” Heppa suggests.
Tric continues searching around and realizes Kachen’s bedroll is also gone. Near where he expected it to be is a thin wooden scroll case. “Oh, there’s a letter.” Tric begins reading it aloud for Heppa’s benefit, since she still refuses to look away from where the ghost manifested.
I have left. I hope we remain on good terms, but I could not risk remaining in case those of the tunnels had swayed your opinion against me.
Tric looks up from the letter, gazing off in thought. “Those of the tunnels? The trolls? Oh, no, the dwarves!” He resumes reading.
I am grateful for your assistance and your care. I had not realized how far I had let myself go. I shall have to be more careful with the dapper inkcap in the future. Perhaps with what the staff can show me, I shall need it less.
Should you still think well of me, I would very much like to consult with your benefactor, but I think now is not yet the right time. I must conduct a bit more research to determine if this path is a viable permanent solution. In the meantime, as you continue your efforts on his behalf, be wary of those of Alduin. They will not understand. They will not even listen.
I have taken the doughnuts and left you the remainder of the hog. I feel that is a fair split. If you wish to dispute this or to be in touch for any other reason, messages left with Alric of the Parting Glass in South Tower can reach me. He will not judge you.Kachen
“Judge us for what?” Heppa asks, confused. With a flood of new things to wonder about, she abandons her guard position and steps up to her cousin, hand outstretched to take the letter.
Tric hands the sheet over to her. “So I guess he visited the caves at some point in time and didn’t get along well with the dwarves there. I kind of thought that might have been the case…”
“So he had been in the tunnels? Why didn’t he say something?” Heppa wonders.
“Because he had a bad experience there?”
“I would have thought he would have warned us…”
“It would have been nice, but the fellow was pretty heavily wounded. And it probably seemed to him like we were going, regardless. Look, the guy doesn’t make friends easily.”
“And maybe he didn’t encounter the bats,” Heppa suggests.
Probably he would have gotten along better with the bats, Tric thinks. Aloud he says, “All right, but that still doesn’t explain the ghost.”
His cousin’s mind is elsewhere. “Do you think he’s not well-liked?”
“Yes,” Tric states plainly. When Heppa wonders why, he asks, “Do you? Do you really?”
“Because he does come across as a little creepy at first?”
“I suspect that is a large part of his problem, yes. He lives alone. He looks sickly. That’s already going to be a strike against him for most people. And he’s searching for necromantic items—for whatever reason. That is also going to put people off.”
“Right! And so are we… which is why he’s worried we’ll be judged.” Some things are starting to come together for Hepalonia, but she still has so many questions. “Why would he think we would go to Alduin?”
“Ah yes… Alduin,” Tric begins bombastically. “Well-renowned… for…”
“It’s all the way off the west coast of the continent, part of human territory. It is a decent-sized island, but…”
“Well, we were talking about merfolk at one point. Maybe he thought we wanted to go to the ocean.”
“Glammur might know,” Heppa suggests.
Tric calls the dwarf back in, since it is now abundantly clear that Kachen is gone, and they have found no evidence of any connection between him and the ghost. Heppa returns to her post, watching for the ghost with sword in hand. Glammur, axes out, asks Tric to keep an arrow nocked. Once the elves are fully on alert, the dwarf slowly steps inside. Nothing happens.
“Seems good to me!” Tric declares. “The ghost finished its task. Maybe of forcing the dwarves to retreat?”
“Or protecting the castle from somebody?” Heppa suggests. “Or scaring somebody?”
“No,” Tric says, “it did that the first time.”
With Glammur now safely inside the keep, Hepalonia asks the well-traveled dwarf about Alduin. Glammur has never been there and cannot recall any stories related to it, but the discussion makes Tric realize he can. “Alduin is home to the greatest human magical academy,” he shares. “I’m pretty sure Kalenz visited there once and showed them a couple things,” he says of the great elvish hero of legend. “But the human mages couldn’t quite figure it out.”
“Then maybe it is an interesting place to go!” Heppa says.
“Why are ye suddenly asking all aboot Alduin?” Glammur asks.
Heppa is curious about Kachen’s experiences in the tunnel, and the dwarf seems her best source of information on that. She hands over the letter.
Tric’s eyes go wide; he would not have done that, but he is not going to make a scene trying to prevent it.
Glammur spends some time studying the letter, trying to decipher the human’s squiggly letters. If only they used nice straight lines like we dae… Finally they look up at the expectant elves. Their eyes take in the small keep, including the little cask sitting near the remains of the hog. Glammur steps over to it and examines the seal. As expected, it is the mark of Untdunben, accompanied by the symbol that indicates the contents are not fit for dwarvish consumption. “Ah… the human yer hangin’ oot with… was that human?”
“What happened?” Heppa asks.
“We gathered that he probably came to visit Untdunben at some point,” Tric comments.
“Were you there when he visited?”
Glammur explains that over the past few months, a human came to visit Untdunben about once a month to purchase provisions, including some really, really bad ale that no dwarf would ever consider drinking. On his most recent visit, some undead assaulted the fortress. The timing of it was viewed as suspicious by many dwarves.
“But what was suspicious about it?” Tric presses. “Like he was in front of a bunch of walking corpses chasing him, and he ran to the fortress for protection? Or they showed up just after he left? Suppose he were a necromancer. What does he have to gain from some undead attacking his trading partner?”
“That I dae nae know,” Glammur admits. “But ye must understand, there has nae been any undead activity aroond Untdunben since Gweddry brought it through thirty years ago.”
“Well, we’ve encountered quite a bit in the last week and a half.”
“Aye, but nae in the tunnels. That’s been up here.”
“Yes, but you live right below the swamp where undead are known to unlive,” Tric counters. Glammur points out that this is a full day’s march away from Untdunben, but Tric insists that undead were bound to eventually find the cave entrance and wander down. However, he does grant that it is a suspicious coincidence.
“How many were there?” Heppa asks.
“Thare were a handful of them. They showed up, and he was thare with some dwarves, gettin’ supplies together. These shambling corpses attacked the dwarves and left him alone. That’s why people were sayin’ that it was suspicious. The undead did nae go after the human that was present, only the dwarves that were present.”
“We’ve seen this fellow in a fight,” Tric argues. “He doesn’t really fight. Was it just that he was cowering behind the dwarves? Or, he’s all skin and bones—Look, I don’t want to make excuses for the fellow, but when we were fighting walking corpses—oh, I suppose they were really focused on us. But we were right there.” He turns to his cousin, “You kind of pulled the corpses up out of the swamp.”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure that was my fault for pulling up the thing it was touching!” A shiver goes down Hepalonia’s spine as she recalls her first sight of those creatures. She lets Tric Manu continue directing the conversation since he is doing such a good job of eliciting new information.
“Maybe it just happened that some wandered doon from the swamp and followed him through the corridors,” Glammur allows, “but that is nae what it looked like tae the dwarves of Untdunben.”
“I hear you,” Tric says. “I’m just saying you can’t go around just accusing someone of being a necromancer. But then again, it’s not like they hanged him, so—”
“You’re the one throwing that term around. I haven’t used that term at all,” Glammur points out.
“Right. But have you been avoiding using that term?” Tric retorts. “Yes, I agree that Kachen is a weird fellow, but it is too much of a leap to say that it is his fault the undead were there.”
“Aye, yer right. Thare may be some circumstantial evidence against him, but nobody saw him summon the dead,” Glammur agrees.
Tric realizes he is maybe being a bit too argumentative and dials it back. “The dwarves have a reason to be suspicious, but, you’re right, no one there accused him. There are rumors and grumblings, but I’m not going to deny anyone that outlet.”
“Obviously Knutan did nae execute him like one of the Wesnoth nobles would have, but he was sent packin’ immediately,” Glammur clarifies.
“Was he formally banished or just asked to leave?” Tric asks.
“He was told tae leave and nae come back. Perhaps it is nae as extreme as banishin’ a dwarf from their own home, but—”
“Has that happened to someone you know? That would make a good story…” Tric loses himself in his own thoughts on what to do with that plot idea, so he does not notice Glammur’s slight cringe.
“I’m sure it has happened tae dwarves over the years, noo and then,” they reply smoothly.
Hepalonia thinks she now has this facet of the letter figured out. “So he was concerned that we would hear about that. I’ll be honest, when I first saw him, it did cross my mind.”
“Yes, it definitely crossed my mind,” her cousin agrees. “But he’s just a weird fellow.”
“But I think he’s too intelligent to try to attack a fortress with just a handful of undead, even if he were a necromancer.”
“I agree,” Glammur tells her. “It does nae make any tactical sense, what happened.”
“Now, if someone didn’t have full control over some undead that they had summoned,” Tric suggests, “or accidentally summoned…”
“Or they followed him in,” Heppa reiterates.
“I don’t even think he had the ability,” Tric insists. “Even if he was a necromancer, he didn’t have a necromantic control crystal.”
“A necromantic control crystal? What’s this?” Glammur asks.
“It’s what necromancers use to control undead. It’s right there in the name.”
“I’ve certainly never heard of one of these before.”
“Well, you get to learn something new then!”
Such a simple explanation does not sit well with Heppa, though. “But what would they study? What would comprise necromancy magic, if not the control of undead? You would think they would have to be able to do it at least a little bit without a control crystal…”
“I literally have no idea how necromancy works,” Tric states plainly. “I’m going to own up to that one.”
“It would be odd to have a whole field of magic for which you need a crystal to do a very fundamental piece of it, I would think.”
Tric shrugs. “Maybe that’s the dark secret of necromancy. That it can only be practiced artificially.”
Glammur interrupts the cousins. “And so what dae ye twae know of necromancy? And these crystals that yer talkin’ aboot?”
“As previously stated,” Tric quips, “literally nothing.” Glammur points out that knowing of the crystals is something. “When you find a battlefield such as this swamp, where necromancers presumably fought, sometimes you’ll find an artifact like a broken wand,” Tric starts to explain, but Heppa cuts in.
“Tric Manu! Tell the story that Daddy did about turning away the undead with the crystal.”
“That’s not a story.” Tric turns back to Glammur. “That’s what our benefactor—as our friend Kachen calls him—wants to do. Uncle Thran wants to study this so that he can better understand how to defend against undead.”
“No, no, there was a case that he was going off of, that of the Null Stone and Mal-Ravanal.” When her cousin does not seem inclined to present it as an interesting story, Hepalonia herself steps up to the task. Recalling her lesson in storytelling from Glammur, she gives the recounting a specific purpose, though her rhetorical flourishes might need some improvement. “With the goal of imparting the information,” she begins, and then she proceeds to explain what little she knows from her father about how the Null Stone was used to counteract some of the powers of the key figure controlling the huge undead army that ravaged the land thirtysome years ago. “So, it is Daddy’s belief that similar control crystals may be used to ward off the undead or to defeat their masters.”
“Once you understand how necromancers are using them, you can develop some general defense,” Tric adds. “Maybe use economics to control the supply of control crystals so that necromancers can’t get their tools anymore? Drive up the price?”
“We don’t know if there’s actually a crystal that’s specifically geared toward necromancy or if one can just use a crystal to power something that would itself be able to do that magic,” Heppa concludes.
“And does this have something tae dae with yer rune shard?”
“We’re not sure if the rune shard could perhaps be used as a control crystal the same way. If it could power necromancy or if it is somehow aspected toward what it does, the snow squall.”
Tric speaks up. “Also, we found it in a super creepy staff with a skull on it, which I feel is a relevant detail.”
“True, true,” grants Heppa. “That was very creepy.”
“And where’s that now?” Glammur asks.
“Oh, Kachen took that; we wanted the crystal,” Tric blithely says, thinking the fellow just needed a walking stick to help him get back to civilization. Heppa points out that she removed the skull from the staff when she extracted the crystal. Tric looks around the keep a little and finds it sitting against the wall near the spot where Heppa and Kachen had examined the artifact. “I guess we should take the skull back, too,” she continues.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Tric asks. He picks the skull up and looks at it more closely. He can see some cracks and seams that support his thought that this is not actually from any one creature. In addition to the curling ram horns, there are way too many tusks jutting out from the upper jaw. Possibly they are from an orc, or several. At any rate, nothing could eat with this arrangement of tusks. The actual skull itself looks like it came from an elf, or possibly a human, which Tric finds especially troubling.
“I mean so Daddy can study it,” Heppa clarifies. She thinks back and realizes that she never did get around to trying all the individual pieces of the artifact to determine which were magical. Certainly the shard is, given that she, Tric Manu, and Glammur have all summoned the snow vortex. Kachen summoned small fireballs when the artifact was whole, but he said he did not touch the crystal and it seems he was mainly interested in the staff. Might the skull itself also be imbued with some power? she wonders. She sets down her stylish courier bag, which contains the shard, so that it is well removed from the skull, and then steps toward her cousin, hand outstretched. “Can I see that, Tric Manu? I want to try something!”
“Are you sure about that?” Tric asks, a little nervous about her eagerness. “This is how stories about necromancers get started. Why don’t we let your dad check it out first?” he suggests. “We don’t know what this thing can do, and it’s giving off creepy vibes. Kachen didn’t even touch it.”
“Is it giving you creepy vibes right now?” Heppa asks, wondering if magic is working at this very moment.
Tric stares at the skull of a dead elf or human, with possibly the remains of a dead orc worked in along with who knows what other creatures. Does she even have to ask? “A little, yes,” he understates.
“Well, what about when you are not looking at it?” Heppa presses, thinking that will help her cousin separate the skull’s visible presentation from whatever aura it might have.
Tric looks away from the skull and straight at Hepalonia. “Yes,” he states baldly. Then he glances back down at it. “Because I can feel those creepy—Look, someone crafted this.” He still does not seem able to get through to her how disturbing he finds the very existence of the skull. She asks him to carry it to keep it away from the crystal, and he agrees that is a good idea. “Don’t eat my rations, pal,” he tells it as he places it into his little knapsack.
Heppa takes a look at the letter again to review what it said about the staff. I shall have to be more careful with the dapper inkcap in the future. Perhaps with what the staff can show me, I shall need it less. It sounds to her like Kachen feels he can do something with the staff, but she does not know what. “What is the dapper inkcap?” she mutters aloud. The name sounds vaguely familiar.
Tric starts throwing out ideas. “Is that a disease? A plant? Did he say he had to go easy on it?”
“He said he would have to be careful with it.”
“Maybe he has a sickness, and it is some sort of medicine?” Tric suggests. “Wait… isn’t it a mushroom?”
That trips a memory, and Hepalonia realizes where she has heard of this before, a lecture at druid school. “Right! That was on the do-not-eat list.” Tric Manu suggests maybe Kachen did eat some, and it caused him stomach problems. “We can ask Fenowin,” Heppa says, satisfied that she has a lead to pursue. “She will know.” Suddenly, going back to the village no longer seems such a bad idea, even if she might run into her mother.
“Is she the one who has things growing in her hair? Like moss? And maybe a small pine tree? I’m worried about what the roots will do to her brain.”
“Yes, Fenowin,” Heppa acknowledges. She had not realized Tric Manu knew the druid who teaches the lessons on potions and poultices.
“It’s odd,” Tric insists.
Glammur suggests, “It shows an abundance of life around her.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Ye’ve just got tae reframe it.”
“She is just more experienced,” Heppa observes, seeing no issue with how her teacher styles her hair. “So she’s going to know. She is perfect to help with this. She obviously has a lot of knowledge.”
“You’re right,” Tric agrees, finally ready to abandon the topic. “Who would know more about plants than someone who has them on her head all the time?”
Given the late hour, they spend the night in the keep. It is the most secure area around, and they are fairly confident the ghost will not be back. They have a late dinner of wild hog, and Tric Manu apologizes to Glammur that the meal is not as good as the spread that Knutan laid out. “You know, I’m a little bummed that we don’t have any doughnuts for you. I wish Kachen would have saved some for us, but I’m glad that he ate them.” He tells Heppa that they should make sure to have some on hand for when they see Kachen next. She remains quiet, studying the cryptic letter by fire light, questions swirling in her head.