Slowly the yard began to fill with wildlife again, as squirrels and rabbits poked their noses out from bushes, and then tentatively crept onto the new mown lawn. The Buyan Warrior's Guildhouse was quiet as usual. With no one actually living in town and all the Clans still in their winter quarters south of Kugnae, it was never busy. Now, nothing moved on the gray rock steps except an increasingly daring cotton or bushy tail.
One particularly bold bunny hopped up the stairs of the Guild, his furry little brain probably remembering a small patch of tasty clover sprouting near the rarely used building. This bunny found his usual path blocked by an enormous black boot. With typical rodent myopia, he followed the boot upwards slowly, finally realizing there was a warrior wearing red armor sitting unmoving above him.
In a flash the rabbit was gone, spreading his panic amongst the other creatures until once again the red-clad figure was alone on the steps. Or nearly alone, anyways, for during the mass exodus of furry bodies, someone new had entered the courtyard. A tall young lady with regal bearing, slender as a willow, had appeared as if by magic. She stood quietly watching or perhaps evaluating the massive warrior on the steps, hands clasped casually behind her back. After a few moments, she smiled and spoke.
"You are precisely where I was told you would be," she said in perfect Kugnaean, although with perhaps a trace of a southern accent.
The warrior looked up slowly from his lengthy examination of the blade he held cradled in his lap. Long and slender, it curved with an arc reminiscent of the moon and appeared to be unused. He considered the young lady silently for a moment, his mind slowly switching gears from memories and metal to a more social mode. He saw a very pretty young lady, or perhaps a better description was Lady, as her posture and attitude reminded him of Royalty. Something about her graceful stance or dark, short-cropped hair tickled at his memory...
"Have we met?" He asked, in a puzzled tone, one that implied that he wasn't used to remaining puzzled about anything for long.
"Isn't that what we are doing now? Meeting, that is," the young lady quipped, beaming a smile at the slightly confused warrior.
The accent was familiar, the warrior thought, Kayan or...
"Shillan," he said aloud, finally solving his puzzle. "You must be PteriDae, are you not?"
"You must be Gareth," the former Princess of Shilla, daughter of slain King Ostrei, bowed slightly towards the heavy warrior. "I think we did those introductions backwards. Aren't we supposed to say our own names?"
Uncontrollable sorrow swept over Gareth as the circumstances surrounding Pteri's parents' deaths flooded back into his memories, as if they had occurred yesterday instead of nearly two years before. The weight of guilt, rarely forgotten, pressed down upon him.
"I am sorry," he hung his head, the long warrior's braid he sported dropping into his lap. "I failed your Father. It was all my fault."
A small soft hand rested on his large scarred one, as Pteri moved next to him on the steps. For a long moment, neither said anything.
"There was nothing you could have done," she said, at last.
In their own way the two took a moment to remember Asaraei and Ostrei of Shilla.
"They got a touching funeral. I don't know if you heard," Pteri said quietly. "The townsfolk where they died felt so awful that they honored them the best they could, even dedicating a grove to them as their burial site. It is very lovely, you would be pleased."
Concern crossed the warrior's face.
"You have been there?" He asked, arching an eyebrow. "That was dangerous. Your uncle could have heard; what if someone recognized you?"
Comfortingly patting his large hand with her tiny one, she reassured him, "I wasn't recognized. Besides, interesting things have been developing down south. Haven't you heard?"
Gareth returned his gaze to the bare blade on his lap.
"No, not lately," he muttered, despondently. "I have had other concerns."
Pteri stood and quietly began concentrating. With a pop and a spark, one brave squirrel's tail began to smolder. The unlucky rodent quickly jumped into a nearby fountain, chattering loudly. Pteri frowned.
"I see you are learning to be a mage," Gareth observed. "Are you frowning because you feel bad hurting that squirrel?"
Pteri laughed lightly, a bright glittering sound, so seemingly new to the courtyard that all the fleeing squirrels and rabbits stopped to listen.
"No, they are dirty, unpleasant animals," she explained. "It's just that my studies in Kaya showed me a different way to do things, as if somehow there is something missing from even this simple Spark spell I was just taught..."
Again she began concentrating and Gareth glanced around the courtyard guessing her target.
With a louder pop and sizzle, several squirrels' tails burst into weak flames. They all ran for the fountain to soak their tails and chatter; presumably complaining about their lives to each other.
Pteri laughed again and clapped her hands, then slumped exhaustedly against the large warrior.
"What in Orb's name was that?"
Both Gareth and Pteri turned to see a new visitor to the courtyard. A young man in the moon colored robes of a healer, although perhaps a size too large for him, stood in the entrance of the yard. He appeared somehow personally insulted by the lady's magic.
"That spell can't be targeted like that!"
Pteri stood up from where she had been holding Gareth's arm for support and turned to face the youngster. Looking down at him, she appeared ready to demonstrate her new spells on his tail or angrily retort, but it was Gareth that spoke.
"Poet Blaster," he rose to his feet. "I would like to present to you the Kingdom's newest Mage, PteriDae."
Blaster was visibly taken aback, then recovered enough to gallantly bow to the young lady. "A NEW mage and you somehow ALTERED that Spark spell?"
He ran his hand through his unruly hair.
"PteriDae? That sounds familiar. Are you the young Dae girl Gareth is has been talking about since he got to the Kingdom? You made a big impression on him! I think I am beginning to see why."
Pteri glanced over at Gareth with a small smile on her lips. The large warrior actually seemed to be blushing.
"Yes, I am," she admitted, then explained. "Gareth and I corresponded for some time while he was traveling with my parents. In fact, I was just about to tell him some news regarding those events."
"It would seem that someone has been spreading the story of my parents deaths throughout Shilla and my Uncle Razzie has spent a very busy year trying to put down rumors that he was behind it. The best guess is that all the caravans going into the Kingdom were instructed to tell what happened at every Inn and town square they came to. The Nobles that control most of the land in Shilla even started meeting to discuss the Kingdom's future. Then suddenly Razzie was deposed!"
Gareth cleared his throat, but did not look up, so it was impossible to tell if he was smiling. "Chased out of the Kingdom by an angry mob, was the story I heard."
He went back to studying the moonblade in his lap.
"You used to be a caravan guard, didn't you, Gareth?" Blaster asked, a smile curling the edge of his lip. "Still have some contacts, do you?"
"Some," the warrior admitted.
PteriDae knelt next to the quiet warrior and kissed him gently on the cheek. He looked up, startled, his face flushing as crimson as his armor.
"Why, Gareth," Blaster needled his older friend. "I do believe that you are smitten with the young lady."
Gareth frowned at the poet, then growled just a bit. "Don't you have someplace to be, Blaster? An animal needing healing perhaps?"
Blaster struck himself on the forehead, then exclaimed, "How could I forget? The reason I came here seeking you out; Kugnae is being overrun by rats!"
"Again?" Gareth, nonplused, slowly got to his feet, carefully putting away his sword into his pack. "Didn't Linskrae try that Yuris ago?"
"Not like this," the poet explained. "These rats are casting ice spells."
Gareth drew a different blade from his pack, this one a blue short sword. He gave it a few well-practiced swings, and then sheathed it at his waist.
"A good opportunity to try out my new Steelthorn," he said. "Let's see if I have everything- Kingdom in peril? Check. Shiny new weapon? Check."
"Healer to keep your fat behind alive?" Blaster interjected. "Check. What's left? Princess in peril?"
"Oh, gosh," PteriDae, the former Princess of Shilla, replied. "I hope not. At least not on my first day in the Kingdom!"
After a quick stop at the dress shop, at Pteri's insistence and a longer stop at an equipment shop for Mage items at Blaster's insistence and a lengthy stop at Yunsil's Inn for a plate of sausages and a bottle of wine, at Gareth's insistence, the trio headed... eventually... for the disturbance.
The citizens of Kugnae were spread out in a long skirmish line valiantly beating back a squeaking and hissing carpet of white rats. They seemed to be flowing out of a hole in the ground near the city's northeast corner, but the clever townsfolk had trapped the rats between the walls.
"Good tactic," Blaster judged, watching the rats getting beaten back by the strong warriors and rogues at the head of the line.
"Yes, I wonder who came up with it," Gareth agreed, nodding at the arrangement, which kept the situation from getting out of control.
Stomping behind the line a few paces was a pretty young mage wearing a (very inappropriate for battle, Gareth thought) Sonhi dress. "She must be in charge. Do you recognize her, Blaster?"
"Sure, that makes sense," Blaster replied wryly. "That's Rowann. That is why this is under control. She beats me at G'oh every time we play. She's in the Army Officer program."
"That doesn't mean much," Gareth teased. "I beat you every time, too."
Blaster smiled, good-naturedly.
"I think I will have to wager with her next time that the winner plays you."
After watching the activities for a few more minutes, it appeared that everything was indeed under control, with two exceptions- there was a seemingly endless supply of rats and every once in awhile a rat would cast a freeze spell and an unlucky fighter would get swarmed and presumably, seriously bitten. The rats would then break the skirmish line and Rowann would have to order a withdrawal to cover the break.
"It's a stalemate," Gareth concluded, authoritatively, looking at the slightly glowing hole with a shudder. Somehow it seemed to bother him, nagging at his memory. "I suppose we could throw in our help, but I don't see it making much difference."
Blaster stopped watching the fighting, instead began concentrating on the rats, themselves. When one of the animals cast its freeze spell almost within touching distance, he turned back to Gareth.
"I think something is wrong here," he shook his head, confused. "It's like this is an elaborate illusion. I can SEE thousands of rats, but I only feel a few dozen at the most. This species of rat has never been magical before, either."
"So where is the freeze spell coming from?" Pteri asked, relatively uninterested in the rats. She seemed more interested in Gareth. He also seemed unusually distracted.
"I really can't say," Blaster admitted. "It is quite an uncommon spell. Hardly anyone uses cold spells, in fact. There is only one person around I know of that uses them much at all."
Gareth glanced up from where he had been surreptitiously holding Pteri's hand.
"Sute?" He asked, naming the wizard captured many years ago after trying to destroy the Kingdom, then frozen forever in a cave as punishment. Somehow even mentioning his name brought a chill to the air.
"Who is that?" Pteri asked, and then listened as Gareth explained some of the history of the Kingdoms, while snuggling under his arm. This was a rather impressive adjustment as she was several inches taller than the squat warrior.
"Some towns have statues," Blaster summed it up. "Buya has frozen wizards and ice caves created to commemorate the close avoidance of the end of the world."
Pteri and Gareth laughed.
"Blaster, we should go ask Sute if he knows anything about this," Gareth disentangled himself from the pretty young mage. "Pteri, Sute is a bit grumpy and we may have to knock him around for awhile to get him to listen to us. You should stay here where it is safe."
"And miss all the fun?" Pteri frowned at the two men then took a close look at the rats for the first time. "Besides, you can tell the rats are being sent here. There is an active gateway spell in that hole."
She looked back at Gareth and boldly grasped his hand again. "Surely you can feel it? You used teleportation spells to send me my letters from Mother and Father."
Gareth remembered the oddly familiar uneasiness he had felt when he first looked at the hole.
"Yes. I guess you are right," He looked back at Blaster, and then shrugged. "If someone has learned ice magic from Sute or is making rats appear by illusion, then this is not the place to look. Let's start with Sute's cave and then what- the rat cave?"
Although Pteri professed that no one but a circus performer would wear as bright a color as the special Sute powder made her clothes, she seemed a little disappointed when it faded upon entering the frozen wizard's cave. It was necessary as entering without the garish powder would be as impossible as leaving is for Sute.
"So why is Sute locked up, anyway?" Pteri asked, curiously as they made their way through the caves to Sute's nest.
"It all happened a long time ago..." Gareth began the story, but Blaster was not in the mood for one of Gareth's long-winded recitals today.
"Sute gave Gareth a bad review on one of his poems," he explained, jokingly.
They all laughed and began "guessing" what must have really been behind Sute's imprisonment.
"Jay walking in front of an Archon?"
"Calling Prince M'hul horse face?"
Soon enough they were at the last doorway- Sute's nest.
"From here on we should be extra careful," Gareth instructed, then stepped through the doorway.
Ice was everywhere, coating the walls, with icicles hanging from the ceiling and spires of ice growing from the floor. The entrance opened up onto a balcony stretching around the cavernous frozen room, descending in a spiral to the icy pit in the center.
"Something's going on down there," Blaster whispered, as the trio peered through the frozen gloom towards the pit. A dull green light flickered deep in the nest, but no real details were visible. "Guess we have to get closer."
The dull blue blade of Gareth's steelthorn blended in well with the ice, as the group crept around the edge of the room, slowly descending the spiral.