Storm followed Sodan down the hall, keeping a wary eye on Ralt. Durin’s assurances were all very nice but he’d heard entirely too many stories of horror to feel comfortable around anyone who practiced magic. If Sodan wanted to keep one around that was his business but he made up his mind to have nothing to do with the wizard.
They entered a large well-appointed room which was perhaps forty cubits long by thirty cubits wide. At one end a large fireplace crackled and popped, ringed by overstuffed chairs, a small table standing by each one. The center of the room was dominated by a tinkling fountain surrounded by leather bound couches and low tables. At the far end, opposite the fireplace was a tremendous desk, lit by hanging lamps and sunlight pouring in through windowed doors which led to a large balcony overlooking a central courtyard. The walls were lined with bookcases and small potted plants. Despite its size, the room had a comfortable feel to it, redolent with the smell of fine leather and lemon scented wood.
Sodan led them to the couches. They all sat, giving Storm an opportunity to scrutinize his companions. Durin was barely three-and-a-third cubits tall, his curly hair and beard matching his snapping, black eyes. His shoulders were abnormally wide for someone of his stature. He was barrel-chested, his arms and legs heavily muscled. His skin was a deep chestnut brown and his face had a peculiar set to it Storm had never seen.
Sodan, by contrast, was tall and lean. Like Ralt (the family resemblance was now obvious) he was brown-eyed and fair skinned. His short hair and beard, once brown, were shot through with gray. Storm judged him to be some years past middle age, but well preserved.
Servants brought in cool drinks and tobacco. Storm hadn’t had a chance to buy any in Vaneer and had missed his after-dinner pipe. All of them lit up and soon wreaths of aromatic smoke filled the air.
“I have no doubt about your skill in combat,” Sodan began, “but I do have a few concerns. If I take you on the trip to Ingold, you will be working with Ralt. Can you overcome your prejudice, understandable though it is, for the duration of our journey?”
Storm’s eyes narrowed as he considered it. “You said ‘working with him’. Exactly what does that mean?”
“A fair question. Durin?”
“I have ta stay here to oversee business while Sodan is gone,” he rumbled. “While me men are good enough in the city, I fear fer them in the wilds beyond. Many sections of the road have fallen into a sad state. Several small villages along the way have been destroyed by highwaymen and monsters of various sorts. Manticores live in the Ridge Mountains, not ta mention wolves coming down from the higher elevations as winter approaches. The men need someone leading them who is used to dat sort of thing. Who better than a barbarian?”
Storm shifted in his seat. He didn’t bother mentioning he was a barbarian only by adoption, there was no need, but he knew all about the road to Ingold from previous trips; it had steadily degraded as the years went by. Between Manticores and wolves, he wasn’t sure which was worse. He’d dealt with both before and didn’t care for either of them. “Fine. But where does the wizard come into it?” His appraisal of Durin went up another notch. If Sodan felt safe enough to leave his house and fortune in his care while he was gone, he was a formidable opponent indeed.
“Ralt will be responsible fer the cargo, while ye will be in charge of physical security. He can also give warning of approaching danger. Some of his long-distance spells are quite good.”
Storm was puzzled. “Physical security? What other kind is there?”
“Ahem,” Ralt cleared his throat. Storm reluctantly gave him his attention. “I believe I can answer that.” He looked at Sodan who nodded silently. “The cargo as Durin puts it is not your usual pots and pans sort of thing, or even gold and jewels. It’s something much more precious – Sodan’s daughter. Well, her body at any rate.”
“Uh, sort of.”
“Hunh?” Storm stared at him. “How can she be sort of dead? You either are or you aren’t.” That was, as the saying went, elementary.
“Krista is actually my granddaughter, “Sodan interjected, “but I’ve raised her since my son and daughter-in-law died when she was less than a month old. She recently became deathly ill and the closest person capable of curing her is Lamriack, a very powerful priest in the service of the Lord of Light. Lamriack lives in Robling, the capital of Ingold. But Krista would never have survived the journey; it’s too long. So, Ralt arranged to have her soul removed from her body and placed in a special container . . .” He trailed off into grieving silence.
“Her body,” Ralt continued for him, “went into a death-like state where it does not age and the illness is stopped. The moment her soul returns to her body the illness will recommence and soon kill her. But only when body and soul are one can she be cured.”
Storm was aghast.
That meddling fool?
He’d first met the priest when he appeared to be seven years old, at a summer festival put on by the horse tribes of the Biqah. The Bear Clan went southwest every year to trade furs for weapons and armor. It was a combination trade fair and festival which left the children free to wander through the myriad stalls put up by the countless vendors. In one of the many public tents, he’d come upon a young priest conducting a naming ceremony for a Biqah child. Fascinated, he’d hung around to watch.
After the ceremony, the priest glanced over at him then did a double take. Lamriack had stared at him as if he was some bizarre freak. Storm sensed Lamriack could tell what he was, or more accurately, wasn’t, and quickly become uncomfortable under the priest’s quizzical gaze. Throughout the rest of the festival, Lamriack kept seeking him out, trying to talk to him, always with the same puzzled, questioning look. The next year Lamriack had been accompanied by an older priest, pointing Storm out to him. The older man had the same reaction as Lamriack. They’d hounded him throughout that year’s festival, as well as the next, and the one after that as well.
Now he had to deal with Lamriack all over again, as well as a devious wizard? Lamriack was one of the many reasons he didn’t permit anyone to talk about religion when he was around. He ground his teeth in frustration. Did he really want this job after all? “Do we have to be there when Lamriack does his voodoo?”
Ralt hesitated at the unfamiliar term, but Storm’s sneering tone made his meaning crystal clear. “No,” he answered slowly. “Anyone can return Krista’s soul to her body. Merely open the container and they will join together on their own. As for curing her illness, he can do it whether we’re there or not.”
“Then why do you need to come along?” Storm pressed him hotly.
“Because there might be others who wish to inhabit her body,” Ralt replied seriously. “Perhaps some poor soul who died young and wishes to live again. There are any number of possibilities. Then too, her soul is at risk. It’s possible a demon from Hell might notice her exposed condition and try to drag her soul down to Hell. It’s to guard against such things that I must go.”
Though the study was warm, Storm shivered in supernatural fear. He might not believe in the gods of Gaia, The Six, and all their theological baggage, but deep down in his heart, he knew whatever they really were, they were still out there. Fighting Manticores and wolves was one thing. Such battles had been part of his daily existence for the past ten years. But . . . a demon? A real demon from Hell? He couldn’t get his mind around it. “You’re going to guard against that?”
Ralt nodded somberly.
“What happens if a demon actually shows up?” Just saying it sent another shiver down his spine.
“Then I’ll fight it the best I can,” Ralt told him.
“And if you lose?”
The wizard locked brown eyes with his blue ones. “In that case,” he swallowed hard, “Krista and I will be damned to Hell for all eternity.”