"It doesn't look any different," the young Rogue said, standing hands on hips at the bottom of a narrow defile. On either side of him were two innocuous looking piles of red rocks.
"Looks can be deceiving," I smiled, nodding at my tall delicately boned wife. She raised an eyebrow at me, and then smiled.
"Do you have any idea what he means, Muse Blaster?" she asked the brown-robed man, who was carefully examining the walls of the defile. He probably expected cowled Ninjas to pour down on us like a waterfall.
"What?" the healer, who had seemed eternally youthful, was finally starting to show some gray, perhaps unhitching the belt of his robe a bit, too. "He probably is talking about you. A very powerful Mage, yet you appear to be more of a highborn Lady. Or maybe he means something mystical. He reads far too much, you know."
"I think he means that just because Nagnang opened its borders," Pyran, the young, but not stupid, Rogue said. "Don't stop looking for those Ninjas."
I laughed, but the boy was completely right.
We were an innocent looking party, certainly no Nagnang spies would ever suspect we were other than four adventurers exploring a newly opened realm.
As we remounted and moved up the pass between the red boundary markers, I weighed our group's strength.
My oldest friend in the kingdom, Blaster, quickly took the lead. Headstrong and proud, certainly, yet his healing skills were almost without equal. Although he was also adept at animal magics, his greatest attribute in my eyes was his courage. Whether holding his ground surrounded by Zibong, or charging into the lair of an insane laughing Mage, he never faltered.
Pyran was the youngest member of the group and the only obvious fighter. As quick as only a young Rogue can be, he was also endlessly curious and had an exceptional memory. More for that then his sword was he chosen for this ride. Perhaps just a bit because he admired my cooking, too.
My wife rode third and on horseback you certainly understood Blaster's comments. The scarf wrapped around her short hair suggested more a regal crown than a sun shield. She rode with perfect posture, gazing off into the distance. Some would think she was distracted with some small problem governing her homelands, but those of us that knew her guessed she was probably sorting through some research into the higher magics, or how to wring more space for her research out of the Prince of Kugnae. He had her assigned to a small corner in the Palace. Her studies had granted her an uncanny control of great power, at a cost, perhaps of some distance to the world around her.
Still, I loved her with all my heart, and if she occasionally treated the Realm's Nobles like naughty school children... well, years of teaching does that to you.
That left only me.
"What's so funny, Gareth?" Blaster wanted to know. "We are riding into recently hostile... heck, recently deadly lands, for no good reason but nosiness. The King's protections don't reach this far, you know. We might all die. I don't see much humor there."
"I was just weighing the merits of our party, old friend," I replied, glancing over my shoulder and casting a quick spell to hear the invisible. There was nothing around us. "When I started to weigh myself, I chuckled."
"It would have to be a large scale indeed, Sir Gareth!" Pyran piped in.
We all laughed, although Pteri was frowning. My notable girth was cause for more than a few jokes. I didn't mind. Though I didn't really look like it, I was a remarkably gifted warrior. A little extra weight never hurt in battle, although it did make running away difficult.
I chuckled again.
"What this time?" my wife asked, turning slightly to peer over her shoulder.
"I was just wondering how many battles I would have run from if I was lighter."
"Same as now... none," she replied, very seriously. "You've stayed in battles while others ran and by staying, turned certain defeat into victory. Young fighters are more terrified of letting you down than any enemy and I think you trained half the Mages in the Kingdom in everything from how to work with Warriors to how to greet the Princess."
"I know one Mage that forgot that lesson... ," I said quietly.
"She deserved it!" Pteri was getting heated. "Imagine the nerve! Asking us to investigate Nagnang so close to our Anniversary!"
Anniversary!?!?! Oh, no!
"Yes, Dear, but..." I continued smoothly. "Your protests merely made Lasahn change her 'request' into an order."
"And here we are. Heading south in the height of summer..." She spun around, turning her back to me. "Did you notice all the bugs?"
She was silent for a long time.
Anniversary? That meant presents! How could I forget?
The last few months had been hectic. It seemed no one believed that I had retired from questing. Sitting in my garden wasn't even good enough for an escape. Some went so far as tramping on my herbs!
The only good thing to come out of all this new attention started with a visit from an old friend. I hadn't seen Hanna since just after coming to the kingdom, many years past. Somehow she remembered me, though.
"A Do Guide? Wonderful news!" I jumped up and slapped her arm. She was probably a quarter my weight, but it was still like hitting a tree. "Congratulations!"
"Actually, I have been a Guide for some time," she seated herself on an ornamental bench, carefully not crushing the thyme plants growing up the legs and back. "Doing weapon's research, mostly. That was where I was reminded of you."
"Weapons? Marvelous! There is so much we don't know," I agreed, pouring a cup of tea for her. Now I wish I hadn't finished all the teacakes I made this morning.
"Your name came up several times in my research, linked to a rare item called a 'spirit sword'."
I raised my eyebrows.
"I am sorry. I don't recall that at all." Yet, somehow, it seemed vaguely familiar. As if it occurred in a dream.
"The only information we have is a description in the Shaman's diary of a 'SHORT SWORD-RAINBOW COLORED'."
"It is not something I can clearly recall," I admitted, wondering how she got access to a Shaman's diary. "Perhaps it happened, perhaps not. I feel you have wasted a trip, Old Friend."
Hanna sighed, and crossed her muscular legs. I hoped PteriDae doesn't come home early from the University and get the wrong idea!
"Not a waste, Gareth," she said, leaning forward. "My real reason for coming was to meet you again. I wanted to see if I remembered you clearly. I see I do."
"What do you mean?" Perhaps it would be better if PteriDae DID come home early.
"Gareth, I believe you are a Do," Hanna said.
I breathed a quick sigh of relief.
"I am honored," I truly was. The Do are a quiet, studious group of warriors of tremendous power. To be considered for them even after numerous interviews and applications is a great distinction. To have a Guide approach YOU... unheard of!
"I am, however, mostly retired from adventuring." I felt the need to explain. "And I rarely participate in any Bloodlust or Carnage events. Poetry is more my style."
"There is much in you that is Do," she said, "I can tell."
Just when you think nothing new will ever happen, something like this comes along!
I began to train with Hanna and the other Do Initiates. My age and other notable features raised more than one eyebrow, but everyone held their tongues. At least when they thought Master Hanna was watching. She always was.
Weapons research was a great joy. I learned more from Hanna in the weeks of my training than I had in my whole life. She seemed to know the strengths and weaknesses of every weapon in the Realm. It must have caused a real physical pain for her to know there was once a weapon named Spirit Sword that had been forgotten. I doubted that she would ever stop looking for it.
Some Do abilities came easily to me, learning to throw weapons and bond with your sword I got right away. Blending into your surroundings was another matter. Staff, the Do Spell-Master, was most patient with me, even if she did cringe every time I stepped into the Circle for training.
"To Blend, you must distract the eye," Staff explained to our group. "Hold perfectly still and assume the nature of your surroundings. Once an eye is distracted, it will stay so, and you can move freely."
Staff stepped in front of the first Initiate, a very young but very talented lad.
"Raven, behind you is a rack of swords." We all glanced at the wooden rack, filled with blade weapons of all types. "Concentrate and become the rack. Your Will can control other people's perception. When someone looks at you, let them see the rack."
Raven dutifully shut his eyes and concentrated. For a second, he seemed to fade into the background of curved and straight blades.
"Very good! Especially for a first try." Staff rarely complimented an Initiate; that boy had a future.
The next Warrior was tall and thin as a reed. Staff made him stand in front of a spear rack and concentrate. After several minutes, his form shimmered a bit and we all saw only the spears.
"Continue to practice, your control will grow."
Staff sighed quietly and moved in front of her last student: me.
I smiled at Staff. Although she was a Do Spell-Master, I really couldn't imagine her teaching me any spell that would hide my bulk.
"I sense a great Will in you," she said, seriously. "You bond effortlessly with your weapon, an ability all these Initiates envy, I am sure."
They envied me? That was a new thought.
"Tell me why you do not Blend," Staff snapped.
I answered quickly without thinking. "I am not a spear rack."
"That is a trick to relax the mind," She seemed angry. "You need to rise above your view of self. People see what they want to see. Your Will can control that."
Staff disappeared with no shimmer or fading. It was a marvelous demonstration of Blend.
After a few minutes, the Initiates and I realized that Staff was gone. We found out where she had gone, as one by one, we were Summoned to the Do training ground in the Vale, where the protections of the King's Magic did not apply. People killed others for fun. Luckily for all concerned, the Resurrection spells worked well. Hard to imagine what would happen if THEY ever failed! When I realized where I was, my first thought was that I had angered Staff enough to take a swing at me.
I smiled at this. Very unlikely. Staff was far too professional.
"Practice here!" she shouted at the group. "Gareth! Follow me."
Uh oh, maybe I was right.
Staff led me into a small grove of trees. We stood surrounded by huge old oaks. I braced myself against attack, just in case.
"You cannot Blend," Staff stood inches in front of me, fists on her hips, "because you see yourself as huge. You are far too big a target to confuse the Wills of others."
"A mountain is not a cloud," I agreed. It seemed she finally understood my problem.
"And yet, does the mountain not hide behind the clouds?" Staff pointed out.
I guess she still thought she could teach me. "Here you practice. You will not leave this grove until you learn Blend. If you worry about your size in here, surrounded by these giant trees, I will be most surprised. Here, it is YOU that is tiny."
Standing midst the giants did, indeed, make one feel tiny. Perhaps that was why all my life I had felt more comfortable with nature than people.
I relaxed and to my surprise... I Blended.
"Ow! It bit me!" My wife broke her silence with a shout, followed by dozens of tiny explosions as she zapped the offending bugs out of the air around her.
"Extraordinary control..." Blaster held out his hand attracting a rather large moth, than concentrated. With a small pop, he ignited the moth, which tail-spun to the ground like a broken kite.
With no visible effort, PteriDae continued to rapid-fire tiny lightnings upon the offending bugs around her.
"Pteri, Dear, remember we are not supposed to use offensive magics," I quietly reminded my wife.
The tiny lightning storm ended abruptly.
"Even on bugs?" she asked, indignantly.
"I am sure no one considered it possible," I swatted something crawling up the sleeve of my peasant clothes. "Though I can hardly blame you."
Pteri glared at me, then at the surrounding cloud of winged pests. She seemed to be concentrating.
"Uh oh," I said, slowing my horse a bit, giving him some distance from my wife's horse.
With a flick of her wrist, Pteri cast swirling clouds of magic on herself, her horse, the rest of the party, and the rest of the horses.
I held my breath.
"Anyone else notice the flies stopped biting?" Pyran observed.
Sure enough. He was right. The swarm of biting insects that met us at the border was gone.
"All right, Wife," I thought I heard a sigh of relief from my horse. "What did you do?"
"Nothing special," she seemed very smug. "I just cast Sanctuary and Harden Armor on us all. Think of the bugs as tiny warriors attacking you. Our skin is now tougher than it was, so they went elsewhere."
"Seems like an obvious solution," Blaster called back from the lead.
"Then why didn't you think of it, Sir Muse?" Pyran asked, laughing.
We rode slowly south for two days, staying at Inns filled with silent people. The Innkeepers were helpful, but withdrawn. We ate in our rooms.
On the third day we came to a sign on the path. Written on it were Nagnang characters.
"Anyone read Nagnang?" Pyran asked, squinting at the post. Blaster and PteriDae turned and looked at me.
"You are the scholar, Gareth," Blaster said, shrugging. "I research animals, and Pteri researches magic. You are the literate one."
"Thanks." I started at the top of the post and read to the bottom, looking for one of the few characters with which I was familiar. Near the bottom were two.
"Prince Kija!" I declared proudly. "This post points to something of his. Maybe a Palace or an Aqueduct. Let's go see!"
"Or a Pig farm, or a Penal colony," Blaster muttered, but, true to his nature, he turned his horse down the little path.
Somewhere south of us was the sea, and I was looking forward to a cool breeze. Perhaps, a nice fresh fish dinner, too. I'd even cook it!
The path led us to a small stream, cutting its way down through the mountains to the sea. It would be a good guide.
I suggested to Blaster that he pick up the pace a bit.
As we came around a curve in the stream, we spotted a Nagnang Guard. A young man in oversized armor with a tall pointed helm seemed very startled to see someone on this road.
"Uh... halt?" He held up a spear. Blaster eased to a stop.
"Hello," PteriDae said, politely. "Are we trespassing?"
"Trespassing?" The Guard looked ready to run. "You aren't from around here, are you?"
"No, we are from the North," Pteri answered sweetly. "Weren't you told to expect strangers?"
"Yes, but not coming up the back way to the Prince's Gold Mines." The young Guard set down his spear and drew his bow. "I do not know what to do with you, so I had better take you all to my Captain."
"Gold Mines?" Pyran said, quietly to not attract the attention of the Guard following us. "Is Nagnang rich?"
I looked at the young Rogue, so young, yet already bitten by the gold bug.
"Rich? I suppose so." We continued following the path of the stream, past multicolored mineral outcroppings. "The stream washes the gold from the mountains, down to the sea. Most of these minerals are valuable. Some are quite rare, in fact."
"You know rocks?" Pyran asked, leading his horse around a crystal outcropping the size of a sheep. "What is this stuff?"
"Quartz, not terribly useful, or valuable. Though I suppose it could be crushed and added to other things to change their texture or strength."
We approached a beach-like section of the stream. Except the sand was bright yellow, with signs someone had been collecting it. "This is sulfur. Foul smelling when burned, good for making fireworks, though."
Around the next bend, we saw a different outcropping. Several towers taller than our horses grew like mud chimneys along the stream. Our guide took great care to circle widely around them.
"What are they, Gareth?" Blaster and I stared wide-eyed at the mounds. They appeared to be stone, yet didn't appear natural at all.
"I have no idea," I admitted, shrugging. "Impressive, though."
"Bugs," Pteri said, frowning. "I can feel them. Thousands and thousands inside those mounds."
"The Lady Mage is correct," our guide informed us. "These are the homes of the scourge of the kingdom. We try to knock them down, but it just spreads the colony out.
Pteri shuddered again.
"One good Hellfire..." she lifted a delicate arm.
"My Lady! No!" the Guide forced his horse between her and the mound. "That, too, spreads the colony. I am sorry!"
"Did anyone try poison?" I asked, starting to get interested in these Scourge bugs.
"Yes, many times. It is ineffective," the guide explained. "The reason these demons are such a scourge is their diet consists of wood. Not just any wood, either. They seem to prefer the wood in the Manor of the Prince."
"So, how do you control them?" I asked, circling my horse around the mounds to get a good look. "There must be some way."
"So far, we merely repair the damage. We replace any weight-bearing beams they damage."
The young Guard led us along the path away from the insects.
"That sounds expensive," Pyran mentioned.
"Very. A good fraction of the gold we mine goes to pay for the Prince's Manor repairs," the Guide admitted.
We finally arrived at the Guard shack overlooking a mining operation. Sluices had been rigged all along the stream, washing water over the river sand dug up by the laborers. The heavy gold settled on the bottom of the sluices and was cleared off by oddly dressed peasants.
"Why are they only wearing a sack wrapped around their waist?" Pteri asked. With all the insects we had encountered, being so exposed must have been torture.
"No pockets," the Guard Captain explained. He had been quite putout with the youngster dumping a problem on him. After thoroughly chewing out the kid, and sending him back to his secluded post, he had left us waiting. This was making my wife nervous, but had allowed me time to think.
"I give up!" the Captain rose from his desk. Scrolls of Law lay scattered about. "I have no idea what to do with you. The Gold mines are restricted areas. Peasants found on that road you took are put to death, or sentenced to work the mines."
That explained why the young Guard was so surprised to see us.
"I am unfamiliar with your laws, Captain," I offered. "But there may be an easy way out of this."
"I'm listening," the Captain replied.
"If we were guests of His Highness, would we be allowed to use the Mine road?"
"Of course," the Captain nodded. "But you aren't."
"Ah, but we COULD be," I smiled. "Send a messenger to him saying you found four northerners that claim to be the best exterminators in all the kingdoms. Will that attract his notice?"
"Exterminators?" Pteri looked at me sternly. "I thought a Do never lies."
"It is not a lie," I defended myself, smiling. "Why can't we be the best exterminators? After all, there is no need for them in our kingdom."
"Why do I get the feeling this is turning into another Quest?" Blaster smiled slyly. Usually, it was me that said that.
"How hard can it be to kill a few bugs?" I shrugged.
The Captain quickly scribbled a note.
"It's your heads," he said, grinning.
"I hope you know what you are doing," Pteri crossed her arms and gave me a stern look.
"Of course I do," I admitted looking smug. "I have a Plan."
Within the hour we were on our way south again. Once past the mining operation trees quickly surrounded us again. Our new guide was a Palace functionary, likable enough, he chatted usually about the Prince and the new open border policy. Still, trust seemed a thin thing. We were followed the whole way by two silent guards.
"So, how are you going to do it?" Pyran asked quietly, moving his horse closer to mine.
"I don't know," I admitted, shrugging. "We can try a few things. Beekeepers control their charges with smoke, perhaps we can just close all the doors and windows and smoke them out."
The woods surrounding the stream were becoming more well groomed. Soon there didn't seem to be a branch or stone out of place. The gravel beside the stream began to look freshly raked.
"How beautiful!" Pteri praised the landscaping. "It is like a garden. The Prince must really enjoy the outdoors."
"Yes, My Lady," the guide agreed amicably. "He tries to bring as much nature to him as possible. Even in his homes."
"What do you mean?" I asked, as we crossed the stream on a delicate bamboo and rope bridge. Even with the weight of all our horses, the bridge remained solid.
"You shall see?" The Guide smiled, "We are here!"
On the far side of the bridge the path crossed a small hill. From its top we could all look down into a secluded valley. Off in the distance you could see the sea, bright white beaches ending at manicured lawns, striped with gravel paths. All the paths led to one magnificent manor house, towering three stories over sculpted gardens.
"Close all the doors and windows, you said," Pyran laughed, pointing at the massive wooden beams extending well out from the living areas on the first floor. The second floor was smaller and the top floor only a small open deck.
"Oh, my," I shook my head. "I guess we know now what he means by bring nature inside."
"No doors and windows!" Pyran crowed.
Every room was open to the outside. Only the innermost rooms even had screens. Workers swarmed over the structure, evidently replacing termite eaten beams.
"I guess we come up with a different plan," I admitted, turning to the guides. "We should pay our respects to the Prince."
"His Royal Highness refuses to stay in the same building as the Scourge," the guide announced. "But he has chosen to remain close. Follow me, please."
He led us along the edge of the valley until we passed into another garden. Stretching out before us was another perfectly maintained natural preserve. Some game could be seen walking unmolested near workers clipping lawns and hedges.
In the center was a clearing almost completely filled by a red tent. Pennants waved from the treelike posts used to support the massive silk structure.
"Circus in town?" Pyran asked dryly, and I shot him a dark look. I hoped to get us out of this alive; he wasn't helping.
The guide led us past several smaller tents filed with furniture and foodstuffs. Obviously, the Scourge wasn't as fond of silk as it was of wood.
When we pulled up our horses in front of the large tent, I was smiling again.
"Another plan, Dear?" Pteri asked, sweetly.
"Of course," I hopped down from my horse, obviously startling the Guards, who expected me to be less flexible. "Let's go meet the Prince!"
I got my seafood dinner. Fresh grilled fish, clams sautéed in wine, then tossed with rice, lobster salad with noodle, all served with the best wine I ever remember drinking. Our host, the Prince, was by far the most gracious and generous Nagnang we had yet encountered. He refused to listen to any talk of business and seemed very interested in all of our backgrounds. My wife got more than her share of attention, but I told myself that as fellow Mages, they had more in common. His interest was not just due to the fact that she was tall and beautiful.
"You know what the best thing is about this lobster?" Blaster held a small white piece of meat up on the end of his chopsticks. "It didn't try to kill us before we eat it!"
We all laughed and toasted our gracious host again.
Pyran especially enjoyed amusing the Prince. He showed off his memory by describing the exact location of every plate and glass and utensil on the table, with his eyes closed.
"Extraordinary!" the Prince praised him. "I am certain you have a bright future."
Pyran glowed at the compliment.
The meal ended with ice cream, a royal treat. We surely embarrassed ourselves with our gratitude.
Our party moved to a garden in the shade of the giant tent. We made further small talk, until I noticed the Prince casually swat a biting fly.
"Your Highness, if I may be so bold," I winked at Pteri and she cast her spells on the Prince. Immediately, the fly noticed the Prince was not a tempting target and flew elsewhere.
"What a simple and effective solution!" the Prince relaxed in his chair. "I should have thought of it myself."
"I said much the same thing," Blaster laid back in his bamboo recliner.
"My wife does have an affinity, or should I say sensitivity, to your kingdom's insect life," I smiled again, at the Prince, using this as my lead in to business. "Which brings up the reason we are here, perhaps we can even up our debt to you for that wonderful meal!"
"Ah, the Scourge!" the Prince casually dismissed the subject. "The best minds in my kingdom have had little effect."
"We bring a different perspective to the problem," I tried to explain. "I think I see an easy solution, but it will take a few resources."
"I have heard that many times." The Prince was no longer smiling. "It always costs me a great deal of gold, and never works."
"Gold is not needed, Your Highness," I chuckled, disappointing Pyran, I am sure. "Actually, I was thinking of one large wagon, some shovels, a small silk tent, and some of the poison you used to no avail."
"With those paltry items, you can rid me of the Scourge?" the Prince raised an eyebrow.
"Well... no, but it should prove a good demonstration of how it can be done." I removed some paper from my pack and began making a list. "Oh, and before I forget, I need several packets of that spice that went so well with the grilled fish."
"You will use spice against the Scourge?" The Prince shook his head in amazement.
"No, Your Highness," the page quickly filled with items and instructions. "I plan to use it on fish. It was delicious!"
The Prince assigned to us a capable young man who had the unlikely name of Butterfly, as our liaison to the Nagnang. He had full authority to provide us with supplies, so before sunset we had our strong wagon pulled by four muscular horses.
"You really don't need so much horse power to move a tent to the manor, Sir," Butterfly observed, ticking off my list as servants brought items to fill the wagon.
"You are astute, Butterfly," I was watching the bushes around the wagon. Some of them seemed to be moving with the breeze. However, there didn't seem to BE a breeze.
"Pteri," I said, "the flies here are quite annoying. Would you please cast your spells on me?"
Being by far the most sensitive to insects, Pteri raised an eyebrow at my request. No flies seemed anywhere close, but she dutifully cast Sanctuary and Harden Armor on me.
While the air swirled with her magic, I cast a Do spell of my own hidden by Pteri's more obvious ones. I cast "Hear footstep", a secret Do ability that allows us to be aware of any nearby hidden enemies.
The rustling in the bushes became magically louder. Several people, probably Ninjas, watched us.
I smiled. So, Prince Kija doesn't really trust us?
"How did you get your name?" Pteri asked Butterfly. We listened for the answer to the question we all wanted to ask.
"My parents expected a girl," he shrugged, checking off the last item: one large brazier. "They needed to marry me to a neighbor family, but when I was born, the alliance was off. So, to calm my mother's disappointment, my father suggested they name me 'Butterfly' anyway."
I started the wagon up the trail towards the Gold mines.
"But the manor house is the other way!" Butterfly tried to move in front of the wagon, but Pyran intercepted him and hoisted the young man up next to me.
"If we are to do this right," I shook the reins and the heavy wagon began rumbling along the gravel path, "we need to test my plan first."
"But..." the boy began. I held up a finger.
"Shh... just listen," I commanded.
"Butterflies are like a poem
With wings of rainbow light
Airborne words that free the soul
"Who wrote that?" Butterfly asked.
"I just did," I smiled and shook the reins harder.
That night we camped comfortably inside the tent the Prince had provided.
The next day, the Captain of the Mine Guards seemed amazed to see us again and questioned Butterfly at length. I took advantage of the confusion around the mine to cast Hear Footstep again and check on our escort. They were still there.
After the Captain reassured himself that we were indeed working for the Prince, we proceeded up the mine road to the insect mounds.
"Let's set up camp here," I ordered, hopping off the wagon.
Our supplies made a fairly insignificant pile. I fended off the incredulous looks from Blaster and my wife with an enigmatic smile.
"Where should we put the tent?" Pyran asked, dragging the silk bundle into an open area near the mounds. "How about here?"
"No," I walked towards the mound and scraped an X in the dirt, then circled the insects' home, scratching three more in a rough square. "Set it up there."
Pyran blinked in confusion.
"On top of the bugs?" he asked. "Where will we sleep?"
I helped him unroll the tent then explained. "The tent is not for us. It is for the Scourge."
"What if it rains?" Blaster asked, as we watched Pyran swiftly stake the tent into place.
"We get wet, I suppose," I chuckled, and then led Blaster back to the wagon.
"Let's go get some more stuff. Bring a shovel."
The Muse groaned, but climbed onto the wagon.
As we rolled away from the termite mounds, I quietly explained to my old friend about the Ninjas.
"I understand," he nodded, and then smiled slightly. "You expect them to try and stop us from crossing the border again?"
The noisy wagon was doing its job covering our conversation, but we all too quickly reached our destination: the beach of yellow sand.
"Yes, I do," I climbed down from the seat and unlatched the back of the wagon. The air quickly turned yellow, as I tossed shovels-full of sulfur onto the bed of the wagon. Blaster sighed loudly, and then joined me. "Time for Plan B."
Our demonstration took about an hour to set up. After the tent was raised, we sealed it as best we could, leaving one laced tent flap open. The brazier went inside and Pyran built a nearly smokeless charcoal fire in it.
"Time for new instructions," I announced. "Pteri and Blaster will head towards the Manor. Every now and then, Pteri will try to feel for the termites. If their tunnels get close to the surface, drive in one of these pegs and fill the hole with poison. Come back as quickly as you can because I have another use for Blaster up here."
After they had gone I instructed Pyran in how to add sulfur to the charcoal: enough to smoke and stink, not enough to extinguish it.
"What will you be doing?" he asked, wrapping a wet cloth across his face. He suspiciously eyed the bedroll I was unpacking.
"Taking a nap," I told him, unrolling my sleeping pad under the wagon, where it was shaded and nearly invisible due to the equipment piled around the wagon. "When you start getting old, you will understand."
I winked at Pyran, and then noisily crawled under the wagon. There was enough loose equipment to make a pretty big lump under my blanket.
Concentrating on my surroundings, I Blended. With all the stealth Staff had pounded into me as an Initiate, I crept out from under the wagon and quickly moved away from the campsite.
My Blend spell faded just as I entered the shelter of some trees hidden well from the path. There seemed little reason to hurry; spell casting is exhausting work, so I rested on a log until I caught my breath.
Soon enough, my reserves kicked in. I got up and began circling back to the campsite, hopefully behind our hidden observers.
Just out of sight of the camp, I cast Hear Footstep.
Three Ninjas had positioned themselves above our campsite, perhaps more on the far side of the stream, although I couldn't sense any that far away. I waited until one flicking into visibility.
With a black cowl wrapped around his face and a featureless uniform, I couldn't tell if he was young or old, high ranking or low.
I sighed noiselessly and cast Blend again. This side of the stream was rocky, so I had little trouble moving up next to the Ninja, who had once again become invisible. I settled my great bulk quietly on a rock next to him and waited for my spell to wear off.
Too bad he was invisible, as I am certain the look on his face would have been memorable. Suddenly a huge man dressed in bright red clothes appeared next to him. I heard him gasp and hurry off his perch in the opposite direction.
"Now, don't get excited," I smiled, towards where I knew he still was standing. "I am unarmed. You wouldn't want to cause an international incident."
He moved silently to my left, circling me. My Hear Footstep spell wasn't impressed with his stealth, though, so I followed his position with my eyes.
"How?" I heard him whisper, probably to himself.
"I will tell you how," I crossed my legs casually and glanced towards the campsite, where Pyran was still dutifully refreshing the brazier every few minutes. "Things are rarely what they seem. But, sometimes... they are exactly what they seem. We are here as visitors, and I can't resist trying to help. Tell Prince Kija that we appreciate the escort, but it isn't necessary. Nagnang seems very peaceful. Relay this to your two friends behind me, too."
I stood up, brushed off my clothes, and with utter disregard for stealth, slid down the incline into our campsite. Pyran barely looked up, not surprised in the least. He figured that I was up to something. Smart kid.
"How's it going?" I asked, peeking into the sealed silk tent.
"Hard to say," Pyran replied, sticking his shovel into the slightly reduced hill of sulfur. "I don't think anything could live very long inside that tent, but we really don't know how deep they live."
The sound of hoof beats clopping up the ravine came towards us, heralding the return of PteriDae and Blaster. My wife looked rather more smug than usual, so I guessed they were successful. Blaster had absolutely no expression on his face, so he must have succeeded, too.
"Well met, you two!" I called to the riders. Pteri delicately stepped off her horse and I caught her in a quick hug
"What have you been eating?" The odor of rotten eggs was fairly thick around the tent.
"I let Pyran cook," I laughed; Pyran stuck his tongue out at me.
Blaster found a comfortable spot on some canvas bags and collapsed. He suddenly looked very tired.
"Everything go all right?" I asked, handing a jar of water to the Muse. He drank greedily, then nodded.
"Pteri had no difficulty feeling the locations of the bugs' tunnels," he explained, taking more water. "We staked the whole ride, especially near the Manor."
"Perfect!" I exclaimed, and then frowned at the Muse. He really looked too tired for what I had planned.
Blaster noticed my expression.
"Don't worry about me," he said, trying out a small smile. "Remember two things: I am a Healer, and I'm a whole lot younger than you!"
I laughed. Nothing would ever make Blaster give up.
"I hope so, old man," I teased, "Because the next step is the hard one. You need to summon these bugs up to where the gas will get them."
The Muse groaned.
Prince Kija was as charming as ever, not in the least offended at our request to join us at the mound site. He laughed and joked with us as he watched our preparations.
Butterfly, however, was uncharacteristically silent as we set up the borrowed stonemason tools around the largest of the mounds.
"We were told that knocking down one of these mounds spreads the colony," I explained to the Prince and his escort, "Rather dramatically, too, I have heard. We think that all the insects are dead, so there should be no effect from destroying one of their homes."
I nodded to Butterfly. He had been vehemently opposed to our demonstration, even after my wife had assured him that nothing remained alive inside any of the mounds. He still remembered old attempts to destroy the Scourge and the Prince's prompt response: exterminating the would-be exterminators.
"Are we ready?" I asked the demolition crew, several burly stone masons from the mines, and Blaster, who was standing beside some horses harnessed to the top of the mound.
The lead mason nodded.
"At your command, Your Highness," I smiled at the Prince.
"Please begin anytime," the Prince replied, "I am thoroughly enjoying this demonstration! You put on quite a show."
I nodded to the masons, who started driving chisels into the base of the mound with heavy hammers. A large crack appeared in the cement-like mound.
"Now, Blaster!" I called. The Muse just glanced at the lead horse. Somehow the horses heard his mental command and began pulling in unison.
The tower tipped slowly and toppled, picking up speed as it fell, until it crashed into the sand alongside the stream. Dust rose in a surprising cloud and the observers all covered their faces with silk cloths.
As the cloud settled, we all edged towards the exposed nest. Nothing moved.
"I must admit," the Prince said, delicately wiping dust from his clothes, "that I am both surprised and pleased that you succeeded."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." I brushed some of the dust off my sleeves, then walked over to the intact chimney, lying in the sand. "These are extraordinary constructions. Has anyone studied them?"
"Our studies have mostly centered around killing off the builders," Butterfly admitted.
"There is nothing like this in Buya," I said enthusiastically. "Somehow I doubt my story will even be believed. Giant mound-building bugs."
"If this success can be repeated in my Manor house," the Prince proclaimed, "you may take whatever proof you require. Keep the thing as a personal memento."