At first, Craven divided his attention between the roast leg of swan and a furtive examination of the Inn’s other occupants. Finding Malef absent gave him a great deal of relief, and he relaxed enough to send a thought of gratitude toward the kitchen. The rich aftertaste of mealy root mashed with heavy cream added to his growing sense of self-satisfaction and he congratulated himself on having left the puttering scribe behind and completing this trek at a decent rate of speed. He had needed the meal, and the sleep safely within walls, which would follow. He recognized the fair haired girl with the unusual mount who had passed them on the road as he finished the last bite his stomach would hold. Wiping his mouth, he got up from the barstool and approached her at the round table.
"Hello again," he said bowing slightly at the waist. "You passed me on the road a few days ago."
"Ahh, yes." She smiled and looked behind him trying to locate his loincloth clad companion.
"I was interested in knowing more about your mount."
"I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name," she apologized, "but would you like to join us?"
"Thank you, that would be nice. I am Craven Justice." A chair from the nearby table was vacated as a man headed toward the bar, and he pulled it up to the table.
"This is Hans Neibor, Darvón, Sir Scat, Deay, and I am Tri-Nova," she nodded at each as she made the introductions. "We are forming new friendships here, waiting for the meeting to come to order. It should not be much longer. What is it you would know about Majesty?"
Addressing the table in general she added, "Majesty is my faithful companion and mount."
"I would know what kind of animal he is. Is he a type of Terrakelpus?"
"Oh no", she answered with a lilting laugh. "He is an Ornicule. They are generally thought to be extinct, but he was a gift from my grandmother who will not say from whence he came."
His spring green eyes widened in astonishment. "An Ornicule! I have heard tales of them but I’ve not seen one before yours! I would love to have a closer look when it is convenient for you. Is it true they can communicate with their masters?"
"Oh yes, quite true."
"Would anyone else understand?"
"It’s a mental conversation and it’s unlikely anyone other than a close companion could make that connection. Although, I suppose it is possible."
"I look forward to the meeting," he concluded with a slight nod and a smile.
"What is your trade?" asked Hans.
"I’m a poet. A teller of tales in song and a promoter," he answered.
"Promoter of what?" asked Darvón.
"Of my wrestler."
"And who would that be?"
"He calls himself a scribe and seems not to remember clearly what his name is. Seems he had an accident that muddled his memory."
"Is he any good? At wrestling, I mean?" asked Hans with some interest.
"Actually, he loses more than he wins, but the occasional win is what counts," Craven answered slyly.
"I understand there are matches here to win the title of Lord of the Pit which is currently held by our esteemed knight here," said Deay, flashing a devastating smile in the knight’s direction.
"Shall we have another round of mead?" suggested Darvón.
"I’ll get it this time." Hans held up one hand and caught the attention of a serving wench. "Another tankard for all of us." He winked, and she curtsied smartly and flounced to the bar to fill the order.
Hans was delighted to see the wiggling and jiggling her flouncing set off, and smiled appreciatively-if wolfishly-along with several other male patrons. The women exchanged knowing looks.
At the head of the dining room, Karl got to his feet and a hush descended as the crowd noticed the action. With his imposing stature and position as owner of the Red Gryphon Inn, he commanded respect from the Talos Valley residents.
"I’m heartened at the turnout. As you all know, we have difficult situations to deal with this night. Thank you all for your courage in coming here," Karl’s deep voice carried to the corners of the room and at the conclusion of his greeting the silence was complete as the citizens waited to hear his suggestions for dealing with the adversity they all faced.
The druid took his time, looking over the people gathered in the dining room, taking great care to make eye contact with each and every being. There was too much to lose if even one being felt left out of the decisions made this night.
"Jon Skysinger, of the Wood Elves," he nodded towards a small being perched at the end of the long dining room table. "I am gratified to see that you have come."
Jon’s face reflected anger. "We have a lot to lose. Normally, we do not mix in the troubles of men creatures, but something has upset the balance of our natural world and danger threatens every living creature in the Phantom Realm."
"Very true. As you have become aware, an old evil has again risen in our land. He has aroused the ancient dragons’ hatred of humankind and added a few ugly creations of his own to destroy us." Karl paused for a moment before continuing. "The enemy we face this time has a name. Karnak."
"Who is this Karnak that he could cause such grief in the Phantom Realm?" Tri-Nova, inquired.
"He was once my best friend," Karl responded and nodded at the shock that crossed her face. "Yes, that expression is indeed apt for Karnak--he and I are both over two hundred years of age and we are also both magicians of Wizard caliber."
"But you use little if no magic here in this valley! I would have sensed it when I rode in!" she objected.
"That also is true. Not all wizards are evil, just as not all magic is bad. I prefer to see people using their minds and skills to create what they need, instead of creating it for them. We say here in this valley, ‘Necessity is the true mother of all invention.’ But Karnak sees the world only through his own eyes and cannot understand that all beings share this world equally. He has walled himself off with only his powers to rely on. And that is his weakness." He paused to let his words sink in.
"If that is his weakness, then we are all doomed!" a shaken voice spoke from the far end of the table.
"No. But we are all doomed if we allow that type of thinking to become a reality. Our power is in our ability to work together and listen wisely to the thoughts and ideas of others. In each of us lies that tiny germ of an idea that could very well save our world from those creatures that rise to support Karnak and the creatures he created. Do most of you know of the legends of dragon-kind and the Phantom Realm?"
His question was met by an almost uniform shaking of heads.
"Then let‘s begin with the tale of how once this very valley was the home of dragons. They ruled this entire world from here. On their beds of purest gold did they lay in a peaceful co-existence with the other creatures rising in our realm. But they became complacent with having the other creatures bringing them fresh gold for their beds and began building hoards for themselves with the extra gold, instead of sharing with those creatures in servitude to them. There were dwarves, elves, fairies, gnomes, ogres, and trolls. Creatures that lived in the light and those that lived in the dark. At last came Mankind. This was a unique being in the Phantom Realm because it lusted for what it could not have. Oh, not all of those delicate creatures, but enough to cause real trouble for the dragon lords. This new creature could pretend to be something it was not-- a friend to the dragon lords.
"The dragon lords had never met a creature so devious as humankind. Those early men learned to use the dwarves to locate the finest, purest gold deep within the bowels of the planet, then they claimed the glory of those finds for themselves, since the dwarves--most of them anyway--could not walk in sunlight to argue the point. The dragons, thinking themselves wise and generous, rewarded these fragile humans with small piles of the glittering gold. This was a great mistake, for the power of gold was rising in the human world, and these men wanted more of it.
"When the gold production seemed to be falling off, the humans blamed the dwarves. Of course this was not true, gold production was at its highest point during that time. The humans were just taking it for themselves."
"What has this go to do with what is happening in Mordock?" someone asked.
"Because I want all you would-be dragon slayers to remember that not all those dragons are under Karnak’s control. Some of them feel that they are acting in a justified manner by seeking revenge for what was done to them. So when you face one of them you will not think that it is bemused with Karnak’s powers, and will know it is willing to die to reclaim what it feels is its family’s rightful property. It makes a great difference in how they fight. One who feels righteous indignation will not ask questions, but simply flame you to cinders and ash. The other kind will wait for a given signal to attack, so you might have a chance at getting clear of the flames." Karl paused to allow his words to sink in.
"If we are flamed, we are dead, right? So what difference can it make?" an angry voice demanded, adding to a growing restlessness in the room.
"It is not just the dragons that you will be facing in Mordock. Karnak has created more of his Night Stalker creatures, and these do not fear the sun, though I choose to use to collective term for them. Karnak has the Stone of Transmigration and has used it yet again to create these new creatures. They are your real danger.
"The Dragons can be avoided unless you choose to make large encampments that they can see from the air. It is the ground dwellers that will come for your flesh unless you are aware! Do not allow any seemingly innocent shapes to take you unawares--they are not all venom dripping, twisted, foul smelling monsters. Jon Skysinger has brought word that Karnak has created creatures that can cloud the mind with thoughts of loved ones lost to you. I am warning you that if you see anyone that cannot be there in reality, because they are dead, then kill that creature, before it kills you!"
The room exploded in riotous noise. And Karl listened to what was being said. Most of it he agreed with, but there was something in particular that he was listening for. He had just barely begun to relax, thinking that this group might have a chance to survive, when he heard what he had been waiting for.
"I hear those Dragons carry their golden hoards with them and if you kill a Dragon, you can claim his hoard!" Whoever had spoken, managed to silence the room with those words.
Karl watched in disgust as eye after eye turned toward the speaker. He shook his head, picking up the vibrations of greed and lust rising among those gathered at the tables.
"No! We have no time for gold! We must rescue the people of Mordock!" a small voice screamed out above the growing din of questions about imagined dragon hoards.
Karl chose that moment, when a single voice of reason and justice had sounded, to use some of his own magic. He put out his seemingly empty hand, palm upwards, and recited, "By the power of creation, by the words of the four stations, I invoke the right to call for a dragon lord!"
Screams of fear and panic filled the dining room of the Inn as a red dragon appeared among the gathered throng. The beast tilted her head first left then right, as she listened to the words of those hungry for her golden hoard. She raised her long, sinuous neck; her eyes blazing with purest hate for these puny beings, and she gave forth a blast of flame.
Everyone close to the image dove under benches and the table as the flames exploded over them. No one was hurt by that blast for Karl had contained it in his hands. The dragon hissed angrily at the druid’s ruse and she sent him a mental image of what she had planned for the magician if he ever came near her again. Karl only shrugged his shoulders and then caused the image to vanish.
"Now, if our erstwhile dragon slayers would be so kind as to crawl out from under the table and benches, we shall begin to decide what to do for the people of Mordock!" Karl watched stone-faced as the men crawled out of hiding on their bellies, for he had lowered the height of the undersides of the tables for just such an effect.
"Now, please pay attention! Tri-Nova, I would like you and Deay to each lead a group of these erstwhile heroes to Mordock. I will leave your approach and battle-plans to each of you gals. Since you go in the name of righteousness, I give you free reign to train those you select in any manner you deem fit." Karl’s eyes raked across those who had been talking the loudest about the dragon hoards and the two women smiled at each other and nodded their assent, going off to make their selections.
"Sir Scat, as a knight having been in service, I shall charge you with selecting the group you would have as your armsmen. Pedrín, would you and Hans be willing to lead a group?"
Without waiting for that answer, he turned toward the man he was most curious about. "Craven Justice, would you be willing to act as scout for our bands of heroes? Jon will report what is happening in the air and trees, but we need a grounds man. I cannot order you to fill this position, but I sense something about you that I cannot put my finger on, just yet anyway. Is there another person who travels with you?"
He looked closer at Craven, trying to see beyond the man’s beauty, for there was something or someone important hidden in there while he stroked the pure white crystal he still wore under his black leather shirt. Had the dream talker finally awakened?
When the druid had begun speaking, an ugly old crone had slowly and painfully entered the inn with head and eyes cast down. She had shuffled unobtrusively to a position behind a group of men standing at the back wall. The dirty brown tattered cloak with cowl pulled low over her face allowed her to blend with the wood background of the structure against which she leaned.
The variety of citizenry amazed her. Never in the old villages would this have been allowed! It was obvious that no good could come of this type of fraternization. Purity! That is what is needed to keep life happy and uncomplicated. We must maintain the sterile, pure state of life.
That was Gayeré’s creed, and it was that which allowed the great vintner to create the most wonderful berry in the land. It was how the priests lived and so should all others!
The crone stood motionless and silent listening to the discussion flowing throughout the great dining room.
Could it be? Yes, yes, it is...Karl of old. Not much changed is he. If Karl is here then so must be Odan, for their fealty is well known. Searching the room with her eyes for the scribe, she heard Karl address...Craven Justice?
And sitting there on the outside of the table...No! No! It could not be! The silver skin...the black hair...the small stature... Damn his eyes! How could that insufferable dwarf be here? He should be in Gayeré! He should be with Almen’s family!
The crone’s hands began to shake as if with palsy. She quickly folded her arms to hide her hands within the deep sleeves of the cloak and dipped her head so that the cowl covered three quarters of her face.
But I forget. He will never know me as I appear here! He could not possibly recognize me. He was only a babe and even if he saw me as of old, he likely would not know me. I fear for naught. It is foolish, however, to take chances.
Craven got to his feet. "I will be honored to serve as ground man. Fortunately, I have intimate knowledge of Mordock and its people as I had the opportunity to stay there for some time. Inod and Eilineen are friends of mine and I would do whatever possible to help them." He gave Karl a slight nod of thanks. "The dragon hoard has long been a problem for Mordock’s people, but not one of this magnitude."
The dragon hoard over Mordock? They could only be the minions of Digenisis. There are no others this near. Then Digenisis has risen again and seeks Myontadu and his weapon. The dragon demi-god seeks to insure his immortality.
The crone began sidling out of the room. So intent were they on the proceedings, not one person had ever been aware of her presence.
Safely out of the public room, she struck out purposefully away from the Red Gryphon Inn on the northern route leading toward Nymph Falls and in the opposite direction of Mordock. Her movements were neither slow nor painful and her strides were uncommonly long for a woman.