I swore an oath to the Worst of the Fates. The Infernal creature extended to its full height, now towered high above me, scales oozing black slime. I feverishly channeled all the power I could into my bonewood staff as turned its muddy gaze and its wide hollow maw in my direction. My curiosity fled; leaving only my continuing desire for self preservation. I held the staff tightly, formed and focused the power now coursing through it, felt the enchantments pull my thoughts in return.

There was time for only one simple spell. I threw all the power into it I could – then blasted the foul creature with a sizzling and searing bolt of white lightning. The twisted pattern burned into my eyes as it ripped through the creature’s coiling body, shredding its bodily muck and casting it back, splashing back down to the mire it had risen from. Not a little of its foulness splashed over me.

Standing there, shuddering with the release of such power, I breathed in the foul swamp air, felt my fingers aching as I loosened by grip on my staff. I used what power remained within it to wipe the stink off my cloak and robes, then turned my attention to the dying stone I had sought, spread out a hand.

I still could not feel the stone. And I should have, regardless of how far it had sunk, if it was not completely exhausted. Sadly, I didn’t have time to spend on further investigations. Nests of mire wyrms sleep in multitudes. I could already feel the peat beneath my feet vibrating anew. Others were stirring below. I made a hasty retreat to my horse, not willing to battle such creatures pointlessly.

Attempting to uncover what had happened to the stone would require greater earth magicks, fourth degree, a kind I had rarely employed, even when I was younger. Earth has never been my element.

As I rode away, I considered the nature of what I’d encountered. No creature such as that could have made a burrow in such a location, not while an Arcory stone’s nullifying essence occupied that ground. To my dismay, I would find similar beasts where the other two stones had been buried in the march’s soil.

One stone exhausted, I could imagine, but three? That was beyond poor fortune. I stood watching, from a distance, the activity of a nest of mud spiders as they sought what had slain their crèche guardian. I had found the missives I had archived to be oddly marked, even suspicious, certainly worth rousing myself, worth ensuring I would be able to investigate freely. But given the state of the Bardelaisch, what had seemed peculiar on parchment, now offered intrigue.

My steed grew nervous again, snorting and pawing the ground, straining on the rein’s I’d tied off to a bone white and long dead elm.

“No escape for you, I’m afraid,” I told him. The horse turned defiant eyes at me, but relaxed, likely understanding I wished to stay no more then he did.

The graying sky above was began to crackle with thunder, soon to offer natural lightning and gales. Perhaps even hail. Not rain I knew, given the loss of the local stones and the long cycles of hot days still to come before The Season of Storm would fall upon this land before long, and I best not remain to enjoy an early taste it. I returned to my steed, mounted up, looked forwards to a warm meal and bed at the Margrave’s keep, if not again, the dour eye and frustration the Margravine Galeata and her remaining servants and men-at-arms would otherwise offer me. Unfortunately, I had nothing helpful to provide them in return; I had not the power to restore what Arcory’s penitence had provided the march. Until the next conjunction, any such Overworld power was far beyond reach. Council had not even begun to debate whether such powers should ever again be sought.

I began to consider the stones may have been stolen, given the level of renewed desolation across the march. Such foul creatures take time to grow, spread. Such thefts would have had to have taken place some time ago. Near six decades of their nullifying presence would not fade easily. But there would have been whispers, wouldn’t there?

Cresting the hill above the barrow, I took one glance back. The spiders were retreating back into their nest. Not even they had interest in facing the weather to come.

My steed made another half hearted attempt to unseat me. I had to chuckle, and wonder if it wouldn’t be better to walk it back to the keep, since I wasn’t going to be chased there. Lightning after all, had always been my element.

On the other hand, solving mysteries on horseback had never been my way. I decided sending a missive back to Council about what I sensed. But little would likely come of it, even I shared my suspicions? It was not as though they’d done anything to shore up or replace stones in the past that had faded. The ideas I’d championed once had taken deep root. Such power was not approved of in this day and age. There were more wizards across the kingdoms than ever before. But none would be allowed the power Arcory had wielded. Such individual power was deemed to dangerous. I smiled at the irony.

“Come now, old man, you wormed your way into this,” I reminded myself. “And you still must do the work assigned, even if it won’t be what you most dread.”


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