Authors: Julian May
As Kalawnn entered, the four persons bent over the map lifted their great heads. The aged Conservator of Wisdom looked vaguely startled, the First Judge bestowed an ironic smile of greeting, and the Supreme Warrior, mighty Ugusawnn, seemed even more truculent and grouchy than usual. The fourth Salka, a sage of middle rank who had been pushing the tiny figures about the map with a golden pointer and lecturing the Eminences, bowed his head to Kalawnn and stood in a respectful pose. The Master Shaman recognized him as Peladawnn, a military strategist.
'You may leave us,' the shaman commanded. Peladawnn nodded and wriggled off.
'Well, colleague,' the Supreme Warrior rumbled, 'it's high time you condescended to join our little planning session. I
was just about to explain my new idea for breaking the impasse at Beacon Lake.'
Ugusawnn had returned from the encampment a tennight earlier when it became evident that the army's advance was hopelessly stalled, leaving his subordinate generals to manage the tedious holding action.
'I'd be most eager to hear your plan,' the Master Shaman said. 'But first, I must give you tidings of the utmost importance. The Great Lights have bespoken me a message.'
'Ahroo!' cried the other Eminences. Such a direct communication was virtually unheard of.
The rotund First Judge took a hasty gulp from a golden chalice. 'What did they say?'
Before answering, The Master Shaman inserted one tentacle into his gaping mouth and pulled the Known Potency from his craw. He lifted it high and it glistened with his own body fluids, a small moonstone carving of a ribbon twisted strangely into a figure-eight that had only a single side and a single edge. Kalawnn held it delicately between four clawed tentacle digits. Its soft glow pulsated slowly.
'The Potency reacted in a strange manner to the message. Therefore, I will temporarily remove it from my person.'
The Conservator and the Judge murmured apprehensively. The Supreme Warrior said, 'Just get on with it, Kalawnn!'
'Humans have discovered the second Moon Crag.'
Tt is situated atop the immensely high mountain known as Demon Seat,' the Master Shaman said, 'just south of the Didion frontier, near Castle Vanguard in Cathra. The Great Lights once again became aware of its location when the detestable Likeminded Remnant used the crag to channel sorcerous Sky power to a human petitioner.'
'You believed that, Kalawnn?' The frail Conservator of Wisdom spoke in a labored wheeze. 'More likely, the Lights
have known all along where the second crag was. Only their Likeminded enemies' unexpected discovery and use of it has prompted this warning to us.'
'Who cares why they saw fit to finally tell us about it?' the Supreme Warrior trumpeted. 'Now we know! And perhaps this second crag has a better grade of mineral than the pitiful crumbling stuff we were able to salvage in the Barren Lands.'
'At such terrible cost,’
the Conservator lamented, 'only to find that it is virtually useless for creating new Sigils of Supreme Power.'
'Perhaps not as useless as you think,' Kalawnn said. 'My workers are cleaving the best piece at this very moment, seeking to free a small perfect portion of mineral from the worthless matrix. If they are successful, we'll be able to make at least one new Great Sigil. We shall have to decide which one is the most appropriate. For practical reasons, it should be a type that is not too difficult to carve.'
'A Destroyer!' Ugusawnn cried. 'A simple wand. What could be easier than that? And what is more appropriate than the deadliest moonstone weapon of them all?'
'Recall that Destroyers are also the most perilous to those who wield them,' the Conservator said. 'During Bazekoy's invasion, numbers of our bravest warriors perished when they tried to conjure Destroying power in a manner that the Lights deemed presumptuous or excessive. The sigil acquired a dire reputation amongst our ancestors for that very reason.'
The Judge said, 'Even the wily human villain Rothbannon was reluctant to make use of the Destroyer he tricked us into giving him.'
Kalawnn inclined his head. 'We should also keep in mind the heinous fate that befell Queen Taspiroth of Moss, Rothbannon's descendant, when she tried to use the sigil
wrongly. Her husband King Linndal, my friend and colleague in sorcery, was driven mad by horror and grief after the atrocious tortures wreaked upon the queen's body before her soul was consigned to the Hell of Ice.'
'What in the world did the wretched woman attempt to do with the sigil?' the First Judge inquired with clinical interest. 'Knock the Moon out of the sky?'
'Worse,' Kalawnn said. 'She was angered by certain - um - activities carried out by the Salka bands inhabiting the Little Fen. So she commanded Destroyer to kill every one of our people then dwelling on High Blenholme Island.’
‘Ahroo!' the other Eminences exclaimed, aghast. 'If such a terrible deed had taken place,' the Master Shaman continued, 'the minor sigils worn by those Salka would have died with their owners, depriving the Great Lights of the pain-energies they crave.'
The elderly Conservator of Wisdom digested this piece of information with a thoughtful frown. 'But how are
to know which commands are safe to give this deadly sigil? I recall no guidelines for Destroyer's use.'
'There are none,' Kalawnn admitted. 'Whoever was chosen to use the Great Stone against the enemy would put his own life and soul at risk, in addition to suffering a tremendous pain-debt. We would require a daring and selfless volunteer ... or even several of them, if the worst should happen. Of course, we might abolish the Lights' control of the Destroyer by means of the Known Potency, as we originally planned. But then the limitation would prevail.'
'A single abolished Destroyer,' the Judge said, 'even when used to best advantage, might not suffice to win back the rest of our island.'
'It would grease the skids of victory,' the Master Shaman said, 'terrify the foe, and give our troops needed encouragement. Later on, if we manufacture more Destroyers from
this second Moon Crag, the limitation will no longer be a serious factor.'
'First, we must
the second Crag,' the old Conservator pointed out.
'Quite right!' said mighty Ugusawnn. 'Our valiant prospecting force was decimated before attaining the Barren Lands Crag, thwarted by arctic elements, harsh terrain, and the withholding of the Lights' favor. At the very threshold of success, our warriors met catastrophe at the hands of a single Tarnian witch-doctor!'
The Conservator spoke with reproach. 'Are we seriously considering a new expedition to Demon Seat in Cathra? Only look at the map laid out before you, colleagues. . . How can even the best and bravest of our people hope to penetrate this well-guarded region of enemy territory? They would have to fight every inch of the way from Skellhaven on the coast, then crawl up a colossal mountain peak.'
'Humans climbed the mountain.' The Judge selected a juicy mollusk from a bowl of refreshments and popped it into his mouth. 'Kalawnn said so. Why can't our warriors do the same?'
'Humans are more agile than we,' the Conservator said. 'The very puniness of their bodies works to their advantage, and -'
The Supreme Warrior had been scowling ferociously, deep in thought. Now he interrupted without apology. 'Colleagues, listen to me! Most of our seasoned fighters are fetched up in the Green Morass of northern Didion, unable to advance further. Only untested reserves are available to us here in Moss. To attack Demon Seat now would require an army of many thousands - virtually all the troops we have in training - and there is no certainty of success. The terrain is rough, with few suitable waterways to ease our passage to the mountain. It would be impossible for our warriors to travel over
it quickly. I cannot recommend that we move upon the second Moon Crag. Not until we are much stronger . . . and the humans much weaker.'
you recommend?' the First Judge inquired.
The Supreme Warrior said, 'We should carry out the strategic action that Peladawnn and I were in the process of explaining when Kalawnn joined us.'
'What is this plan?' the Master Shaman asked.
The Salka general took up the golden pointer left behind by the military strategist and began to indicate features on the map.
'I propose that we immediately abandon our unsuccessful push through the Beacon River Valley. It was an excellent scheme, but it has failed for reasons we could not anticipate. I propose that the regular army should now withdraw to the north coast, feigning a return to Moss. However, the force will actually set out to circumnavigate Tarn - thus! - moving north around the Lavalands Peninsula and then westward, using the greatest stealth to ensure that our warriors are not detected by human ships. Meanwhile, our keen young reserves will swim
from here in Moss, past Didion and Cathra, into the Dolphin Channel, where they will turn west. At the Western Ocean they will proceed north to Terminal Bay near the disputed frontier between Tarn and Didion. There the united army will regroup and launch a new offensive.'
'But the time factor -' the Conservator protested. 'It will take no more than half a moon to get both forces into position,' Ugusawnn said. 'Plenty of time before the really severe winter weather rolls in. We'll vanquish all human settlements on Terminal Bay in short order - even without using a Destroyer. Then, while the reserves hold the bay secure, our regular army force invades Didion via the Dennech and Shadow Rivers and the Tweenwater marshes.'
'I like it!' the First Judge enthused.
'The pirate strongholds of Terminal Bay have fleets of well-armed gunboats and a few fighting frigates,' the Warrior went on, placing tiny model ships into position by way of demonstration. 'They'd have to be vanquished promptly before they were reinforced by the enemy fleets based at Tarnholme and at Yelicum in the Firth of Gayle. But observe how constricted the entrance to Terminal Bay is.'
'Ah!' breathed the other Eminences.
'Once the bay is secured by our warriors, it can be readily defended from attack by sea - a situation which the local human pirates have taken advantage of for centuries!'
'How much opposition might we expect as we move inland?' Kalawnn asked. 'Unlike the Green Morass, the region seems to have numerous castles and settlements.'
'But most are very small,' Ugusawnn said. 'The fortified town of Dennech-Cuva would be bound to put up a good fight, since it is the ducal seat. We should probably beleaguer and bypass it, leaving the inhabitants to starve. The castles deeper within the Great Wold are pitiful things - barely more than strongholds for brigands. The region's rivers are deep, providing excellent corridors for troop movement, and the swamps are much more congenial to swift Salka progress than the terrain of the Green Morass, even though the distance to be covered is greater. There should be plenty of aquatic food for our warriors along the line of advance. We'll build a string of garrison lodges in suitable spots for hibernators. However, most of our army would spend the winter in a state of alertness in Terminal Bay. It doesn't ice over and it's full of fish.'
'How far do you think we might penetrate this year?' the Judge inquired eagerly.
'With luck, we'll get as far as the Wold Road before bad weather stops us. That's the main land route connecting Tarn
to Cathra and Didion. If we control it, we own the heart of High Blenholme Island!'
'Audacious,' murmured the Conservator of Wisdom, studying the map. 'Too bad we didn't choose this course in the first place.'
'Beacon Lake would have been faster,' the Supreme Warrior growled. 'If we hadn't encountered
'Even if we don't reach the road this year,' the Judge said, 'we'd surely be able to get there by late spring, wouldn't we?'
'Beyond a doubt,' said the Warrior. 'And with high mountains protecting our position on two sides and the bay secure at our rear, it would be difficult for the enemy to outflank us. Their main body of troops would have to come at us
along the Wold Road.
We could cut it at many points - not just one - by demolishing bridges and causeways through the wetlands.'
The Conservator blinked his feebly glowing eyes. 'Is there any alternative to this proposal?'
'Only an ignominious retreat to Moss,' said the Warrior, 'with a renewed assault in spring. This is what the foe will expect us to do, of course. But they will be taken completely by surprise if we strike from the Western Ocean this year.'
'Do we have the resources to accomplish this?' asked the Master Shaman.
'We do,' Ugusawnn stated, 'if we act without delay. And this new scheme also enables us to reclaim the element of shock that was lost when we stalled at Beacon Lake.'
'Well thought,' said the First Judge. 'Shall we agree to put this plan into action?'
The others concurred unanimously. The Warrior displayed a frightful smile of triumph and began to gather the map figurines into a golden box.
'Before we disperse,' the Conservator of Wisdom muttered,
'I must return to Kalawnn's earlier news of significant import. What was the nature of the sorcery channeled by the vile Likeminded Lights to the humans who climbed Demon Seat?'
'I'm not certain, Wise One, but I believe it was a fairly insignificant display of power,' the Master Shaman said. 'A mere trifle. You must understand, colleagues, that the truly remarkable thing is the fact that the Defeated Remnant had the ability to channel sorcery at all! One wonders whether the struggle between the two factions of Lights might be entering a new phase.' He studied the enigmatic sigil called the Known Potency, which he still held in his tentacle. 'Perhaps the Great Lights would tell us what happened if I inquired.'
The Warrior gave a thunderous snort. 'We'd do better to ask them whether the human who used the Moon Crag's magic had any notion at all what he was doing!'
'True,' the First Judge agreed. 'Find out who this person was. Was he sent by the One Denied the Sky, who is called the Source by humankind? What favor was obtained? Do humans now intend to create new Sigils of Supreme Power from the second crag to oppose our conquest?'