Tric raps on the open door to his Uncle Thrandolil’s study. The walls here are partially composed of still-living branches that wind through the room. Each V created by a branch splitting off from its parent serves as a resting place for a scroll. Bound books lay in stacks on all the flat surfaces, sharing space with various knick knacks and other unidentifiable objects. “Hey, Uncle Thran! Anything new?”
The elf looks up with a wide smile and responds the way that he always does to his nephew’s casual greeting. “It’s what’s old, that’s what matters! Come in, come in!” He pulls out the scroll he was reaching for and blows it off. The air fills with released dust, and Tric Manu coughs his way into the room. Thrandolil opens the scroll, showing it off. “Now look at this, young one!”
The scholar points out the style of script, one used by humans. It would be comprehensible given enough study, but it is too much of a headache to decipher for Tric to bother. He instead comments on the smell of the document and is pleased by the distraction that creates. Uncle Thran ruminates about using scents to encode information and the storage issues that would create. Tric mentions encountering a fox doing just that recently. It is at this point that they are joined by another visitor.
Hepalonia mounts the winding staircase that leads to her father’s study, all set to flounce in and complain about how unreasonable her mother is being. As she approaches, though, she hears a conversation already underway and revises her entrance accordingly. Her cousin is looking over a scroll with her father, rambling about foxes. “Tric Manu! What brings you here?” she asks as she enters.
“Yup, that’s my name. Twice as nice, don’t forget it!” her strange cousin tells her. “Actually, my dad said it would be good for me to diversify a little bit. I’ve learned all I can about water dowsing.” He turns his attention to her father. “He recommended I come talk to you to see whether you needed any, oh, I don’t know, scouting help or something? Plus, it was really rainy this past season, so they just don’t need as many water dowsers.”
“Was it especially rainy?” Heppa asks. None of her coursework with the shamans and druids has covered water dowsing so she is no expert. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Thrandolil’s brow crinkles. “That’s strange because that’s the opposite of what Nasir was telling me. He said they were having trouble finding water of a sufficiently pure variety, at least farther out to the east.”
Tric seizes the opening. “Oh, I was talking about the west. Of course, if there’s more water in the west, then there is less in the east.”
There is a large river out to the west, supporting Tric Manu’s argument, so Thrandolil accepts the explanation. “I thought the River Weldyn was too far away to influence our water table here so much, but I suppose that makes sense.” He pulls out an older map of the area around Estbryn Forest to put things in context.
As Uncle Thran unfurls the scroll across his desk, Tric worries that he has not escaped from dreadfully boring discussions of water after all. However, once it is open all the way, Tric’s attention is caught by the small crossed swords marking various places. Some are even near the edges of their own forest, both along the south and the north. His cousin seems similarly struck. “What happened here, Daddy?” she asks, pointing to the northern symbol.
“They should really have put crossed swords all over this hilly region,” Thrandolil mutters. “Oh, that one—”
“Wasn’t that the Great Massacre of ‘76?” Tric inserts, fabricating an event on the spot.
Thrandolil waves away his nephew’s comment. “I don’t remember how the Wesnoth humans mark their years.” Turning to his daughter, he relates what he knows. “That was a bit of a scrape, you might say. Some humans came rolling through—not to attack us, mind you, not like the ones in the south, thank goodness. They had gotten chased out of the hills by undead. High Lord Volas, he offered them succor. But they chose not to stay very long. Some orcs had moved into the region as well, and after a bit of a skirmish in which we helped clear the orcs out, the humans continued on their way. They were led by a fellow… Gweddry. Yes, Gweddry was his name. Now fancies himself Earl of Estmark.” Thrandolil chuckles. “As if the humans will be able to hold onto the lands around here for very long. Those hills are inhabited by what some might consider banditry or rabble. And the King of Wesnoth considers them subjects these days!”
“Some scholars think that the humans show up every few decades as a form of exercise,” Tric interjects.
“Like cicadas?” Heppa asks.
“Or yes, something like that.”
“They eat everything and then they’re gone?”
Tric takes this lead and runs with it. “They feast for as long as they can and then they go back. They recede, like the tide. Humans come in, humans go out. You can’t explain it.”
Heppa turns to her father. “But where did the undead come from?”
“They are a thing like humans,” he says. That comment hangs in the air for a moment. Then he looks at his nephew, and, a bit embarrassed, elaborates, “They come and they go, I mean. And invariably, they come from humans messing with magics they cannot understand and should not touch.”
Heppa has not gotten anything about human magic from the book she was reading. “What sort of magic do humans have? Is that a common thing?” Her father answers that it is bookish, but Tric Manu mentions magic rings. “Is that true, Daddy?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that humans necessarily use magic rings, but sometimes some undead have rings upon them to give them more permanence. I’ve never really seen those myself. I’ve only heard stories. But I do have around here—” He starts poking around various alcoves, looking for something. His desk has all the same odds and ends on it as the last time Heppa was here. She has examined them all before and none have been particularly interesting, but she looks them over again, just in case he has gotten something new.
Thrandolil continues lecturing as he searches around. He explains that undead are a result of humans messing with dark magic. “It was particularly bad thirty—” he looks up at Tric Manu, “yes, thirty or so years ago. Our people pulled in our borders, tucked ourselves close into the heart of the forest and let the whole thing blow over. The humans fortunately fixed the problems that they themselves had created.”
“They’re a can-do people,” Tric opines.
“That may be, but we did not get by completely unscathed. Ah! There it is!” He finally produces a short rod. Tric sees a wooden stick in his uncle’s hand and for a brief moment feels a sense of panic, but then he realizes it is not forked, so it is no dowsing rod.
“What is that!?” Heppa exclaims. She has never seen this before, and she has poked around her father’s study a good bit. He tells her it is a necromancer’s rod, and she asks, “Can I see it, Daddy?”
“Necromancers are the type of undead that like to bite people’s necks,” Tric expounds. “Hence the name: neck-romancer.”
Thrandolil raises an eyebrow at Tric Manu. “I think those ones are called vampires.” He hands the rod over to Hepalonia so he can shuffle through some more papers.
Studying the rod, Heppa notices a small socket where something is clearly missing. “What does it do?”
“Well, thankfully it does nothing here in the safe confines of my library. And nothing because it is missing its control shard,” her father answers over his shoulder as he looks for some sources to support their discussion of undead.
Heppa learns best from experience. She shakes the rod, wondering whether it can do anything at all. She hears a sucking sound and feels suddenly rather weary. Interesting.
Tric has never heard of vampires before, so whatever Uncle Thran has to say is potential fuel for later stories. He joins his elder at a manuscript. Uncle Thran says something about veracity that is irrelevant, but then gets down to the meat of the matter. He only has one account of a vampire in his records, and she was rather saucy, based on the details. That may or may not be a feature of all vampires. Tric asks whether the rod-using ones, whatever they are called, are more common.
“Necromancers, sometimes called dark adepts,” Trandolil corrects as he resumes lecturing. “These may be different ranks that they achieve as they progress through their powers. But this rod—thank you for holding it, my dear.” He takes the implement back from Hepalonia. “Normally there would be some sort of control gem here that would help them focus their dark energies. And this is how, when a human goes bad, they can raise such hordes of undead so quickly. They focus their energy through these crystals and—” he looks at the rod more closely, seeming to forget his audience for a moment. “One wonders if these crystals could be used for anything else, if they were, uh—well, who knows! You’d have to go searching through the old battlefields. I don’t even think the humans understand these things. When they fight their wars, they usually just let these necromancers lie where they fall. March over them. Let them sink back into the swamps. I don’t think anyone ever really pays much attention to the tools.”
“Well, if they’re summoning undead… putting them back in the ground just makes sense, right?” Tric asks.
“Or it just stores them for the next wave of necromancers to come through,” his uncle counters.
The artifact itself still holds Hepa’s attention. “So what happened to the control crystal for this? Did you take it out to separate them?” Her father explains that the shard was already missing when the rod came into his possession. That just prompts Tric Manu to ask where he got the object. “Daddy has a lot of friends. They know his interests,” Heppa tells him.
“It’s true, it’s true,” Thrandolil says. “When you have a position such as mine and you collect all this knowledge, why, everyone wants to come to your door. Isn’t that why you came, Tric Manu?”
“More or less, yeah.”
But the device! “What do you think these control crystals can do besides…” Heppa waves her hand at the rod. “Is it the nature of the crystal itself or inherent to the rod that determines what it does?”
Thrandolil admits quite openly that he does not know and goes on to state baldly that no elf would ever be involved in dark magic. “I don’t even think it is possible for elves to wield it.”
Tric has read and heard many tales. Breda in particular has shared many good stories. “What about Mal-what’s-his-name? Mal M’Brin?”
“Oh, I’ve heard that story before from Breda. That’s all it is, a story. No elf would ever do anything with undead. That is completely contradictory to the natural cycle. Everybody needs to decay in the end. It’s the only way for the next generation to rise. Elves would not do this even if they could, which they cannot. It is contrary to elvish nature to even be able to wield such antithetical-to-life powers.”
Heppa considers what she felt while holding the rod and wonders if maybe her father is not exactly correct. Meanwhile, her cousin has latched onto a different part of the discussion. “So…” Tric Manu begins slowly, “there’s a thing that humans can do… that elves cannot? Is it that humans are better at terrible things, like accidentally burning down their whole city?”
Thrandolil nods agreeably. “Right! Elves would never burn down their own forests, but humans—why, I heard they had an entire city that just collapsed!”
“Well, maybe just a shrub by accident,” Heppa says quietly. “You have to learn magic somethow.”
“Yes, yes,” her father says, patting her shoulder reassuringly. “All young sorceresses have gone through that, I’m sure. Oh, did you burn down a shrub today? Is that what you were coming to tell me about?”
“Not today,” Heppa admits, suddenly crestfallen. “Mother’s upset with me again.” It is a sentiment that her father can personally understand. “I think she wants me to get a job. She told me to come talk to you.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” her cousin commiserates.
“Your mother wants you to work?” Thrandolil asks, shocked that Penna would desire such a quotidien activity for one of their children. Hepalonia mentions joining a scouting party, and Thrandolil offers encouragement. “Now, a real scouting activity is not just patrolling the edges of our forest. No, it would be better for you to do something useful and practical. And bring back new knowledge with you.”
Heppa perks up. “What did you have in mind, Daddy?”
“Well, you were just asking about these shards. There was a lot of undead activity during the invasion thirty years ago. A lot of these necromancers were stopped. Their rods have got to be somewhere. There were a lot of battles in the Estmark Hills. And during my own small amount of experience in the field, we did run up against some undead forces when we were—uh, retreating is not the right word—pulling back.” Thrandolil turns to his nephew. “I’m sure your father has told you many, many stories of that.”
“You know, he’s not mentioned it that much, actually,” Tric replies. “This is the first I’ve heard any details of that.” His father never talks much about that time, nor does he say anything about Tric’s mother. The few times Tric has asked, all Nasir has said is that those were very dark days. “No, he doesn’t like to talk about that, so I don’t press him. I give him enough trouble as it is.”
His nephew sounds uncharacteristically somber, so Thrandolil tries to lighten the mood. “Oh, you young ones, always getting into scraps! Well, I suppose that was a difficult time for him, and water dowsers are crucial for an army…”
Tric needs to kill that moist topic quickly. “So! You need someone to search the Estmark Hills! I know that area very well.”
Thrandolil knows from talking with Nasir that his nephew has never been that far afield, but he likes his positive attitude. “That’s the spirit! The only thing separating you from the knowledge is the experience itself! Why, when you march out of here and go up into those hills, then you’ll be able to say, ‘Yes, I know these hills well!’ And hopefully you’ll also be able to bring back something interesting for me.”
“You want us to go look for the crystals and get you one?” Heppa asks.
“Or two, maybe?” Tric shrugs. “You said there were a lot of these necromancers.”
“That would be wonderful!” Thrandolil confirms.
“Thank you, Daddy! Thank you!” Heppa gives her father a big hug. This is the best news!
Tric is actually a little surprised. This is the best mood he has ever seen his cousin in. Usually he just sees her at family functions, where she always seems to be either getting dressed down or acting excessively proper.
When Tric and Heppa finally leave Thrandolil’s study, it is with the commission to recover the defunct rod of a defunct necromancer. Although he has only a small magical ability himself, Thrandolil is interested in studying a rod and running some experiments. A question he wants to explore is whether the shards contribute to the humans going crazy or amplifies their power in some way. When the next wave of undead rises, the goodly people might have an advantage if they know more about the crystals. Thrandolil does share with the young ones that the defeat of the previous super-powerful necromancer, Mal-Ravanal, was enabled by the use of a magical stone, the Null Stone. If the little stones can somehow be used to stop undead hordes, it would save a lot of people from being cut down or worse. “It’s unfortunate, but many of the warriors who fall to these foes rise again as part of those undead hordes.”
“They’re trapped as slaves to the necromantic masters,” Heppa gasps.
“Yes, it’s a horrible fate,” Thrandolil acknowledges somberly, “and it happened to a lot of people that you never met because you were too young when we dealt with this issue last.” He looks to Tric Manu. “And maybe that is why your father doesn’t like to talk about it.”
“I did not know that it was a fight against undead. I thought—well…” Tric is reeling a bit from all the new information coming in. “Okay. That’s new. I hadn’t heard that before.”
“Well, you need to study up more!” Thrandolil encourages.