"Are you certain you heard right?" Fareena fixed Quimius with a wry smile, her elegantly arch eyebrows raised skeptically. "You know what they say about the tongues of bards?" A devilish smile spread across Quimius's face. "I would answer that, but it would not be gentlemanly of me to speak so." He winked at her charmingly. Fareena rolled her eyes. "They say your tongues are prone to exaggeration! That is why you'll very rarely see a bard visiting the Shrine of Honesty!" "You wound me!" Quimius said, taking mock offense. "In truth, it could just be a rumor, a fanciful tale to intrigue audiences. Nevertheless, I am certain the Lenmir Anfinmottas exists. It appears on many of the ancient maps of Ilshenar. Legend tells of wondrous seahorses who were tamed by mariners and ridden on the waters of Ilshenar. It is further rumored that this was the primary means of traveling to the Lenmir. Alas, the seahorses all died out long ago and the Ilshen people, and all the other races on Ilshenar, refuse to build boats. I wonder why?" Quimius mused. "There must be a reason. Do you think there is something strange with the water which eats away at the ships? Perhaps some acid which also killed off the seahorses." Fareena snorted. "There goes that tongue of yours. The water is pure enough to drink," Fareena said, nodding at the campfire where a pot of hot soup was boiling. "Pure enough for soup as well. Why would it decay boats." Quimius grinned sheepishly, then knelt to ladle himself a bowl. "At any rate, we cannot get there by water, unless of course we import a host of shipbuilders and protect them from the dangers of this land as they construct us a ship. I swear to you, however, that a story is spreading about priests who have communed with their gods. They learned there is some gateway out there which will take you to the Lenmir Anfinmottas." Fareena snorted. "I wager these weren't priests of Synord, god of Honesty, nor Tranda, goddess of Truth?" She got herself a bowl of soup, inhaling the aroma of spices A ghost of a smile crossed Quimius's face, but his eyes were lost in thought. "I confess my curiosity gets the best of me. What resides in this mysterious place? Potential allies? Potential enemies? Perhaps it is another civilization enslaved by the dark powers." "I have searched up and down the mountains by the Shrine of Spirituality and have found nothing," Fareena said, pulling a loaf of bread from her pack and unwrapping it. She tore a piece off ant tossed it to Quimius, then proceeded to dip her bread into her soup. I even snuck into the spider cave and explored there." She shook her head. "Nasty eight legged creatures give me the shivers, and those are the tiny ones. The big ones are simply a nightmare to look on." "Did you find the gateway to Reg Volom?" Quimius asked. Fareena's eyes were bright. "Yes and that's what made the journey into the spider cave worth it. Reg Volom is beautiful. You arrive on a bright sandy beach, the warm sun shining upon you, and glittering before you are the pristine walls of an impressive fortress. I couldn't help but feel awed. If ever I find a husband, I will beg the ethereal warriors if I can hold my ceremony there!" "Did you speak with them and ask them about the Lenmir?" Quimius inquired. "Yes, but apparently they are newly come to Ilshenar and are not familiar with it." Fareena shrugged. "They are serene and do not seem troubled by the ills which befall the world. They seem content to study the ancient writings which can be found in the keep. Reg Volom itself is no less mysterious than your Lenmir." "Indeed, but at least we have a means of getting there so we may investigate in the future," Quimius pointed out. "True and I hope to return, if only to enjoy the comforts which I found there," Fareena said. "I could not stay long, for there was still a long road ahead of me if I wanted to rendezvous with you. Trolls, harpies, imps, and one very surly drake. Those are the dangers I avoided on my trek. I hope you appreciate me being here!" "I do," Quimius bowed to her. "If you had faced no dangers at all, still I would appreciate your being here." Fareena smiled in pleasure. "How went your journey? Did you find this place without trouble." "No trouble," Quimius said around a bite. "I was able to avoid the ratmen and orcs. A few might've seen me, but they were content to go on with their lives rather than troubling a lone rider. Once out of their lands it was a simple matter of finding the lake." He gazed out over the darkening waters of Termir Flam. The fading light of twilight gleamed like gentle firelight upon the surrounding mountainsides, glimmering upon the waves like dancing candles, yet the imposing structure which rose upon the island before him reflected no warmth. Constructed of solid, dull gray stone, the keep rose ominously into the sky, rivaling the mountains. "Yon keep makes for quite a noticeable landmark, though I imagine I might've missed it if I had come here at night. What is it?" "It is called the Ancient Citadel by the gypsies," Fareena answered. "It is the last bastion of some ancient empire which fell into ruin. Undead prowl the grounds. Vile undead! There are skeletons and zombies lurking about the foot of the bridge, but the courtyard of the keep itself is patrolled by rotting corpses." Quimius grimaced. Rotting corpses were terrible to behold, their slimy rotted bodies imbued with a terrible evil. A terrible light shone in their eyes and their faces were twisted in pure malice. Though they did not move quickly, they were tenacious in pursuing their victims. In battle, their evil essence sustained them long after their physical body should have fallen into ruin and their putrid flesh had the ability to infect the living with disease. The last light of day faded and darkness closed in around them, only kept at bay by the circle of dancing light cast by their small fire. Quimius felt chilled. "You've been there before?" he asked. "In the keep? Nay. Merely passed by it," Fareena answered. "We'll pass by it in the morning. The only way to get to the desert outposts is via the bridges which traverse the lake." "Hmmm, another necromantic society, it sounds like," Quimius muttered, finishing off his soup. "We've heard much about the restless dead and necromancers in these days. I wonder what it portends." "Only the gods know," Fareena took up the plates and the soup bowl. "Best get some sleep now. I'll take first watch." She turned and began heading to the water's edge to rinse the dishes. "An early start to avoid trouble?" Quimius asked as he rolled himself up in his cloak. "It matters not. The dead never sleep." Fareena's words drifted back to him as she vanished into the darkness. * * * * * The night passed restlessly for Quimius whose dreams were haunted with images of the undead he had fought in his life. He struggled briefly when Fareena shook him awake to take his watch. "Easy! It is only me," she said. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and grinned at her sheepishly. "I was dreaming," he said in explanation. She squeezed his arm affectionately, then curled up and went immediately to sleep. Staring up at the great wheel of stars overhead, Quimius surmised it was an hour or so past midnight. He seated himself with his back to an oak, his feet to the glowing coals, and he lost himself in thought. His gaze ventured to that silhouette of darkness out on the water which blotted out the stars. He was still seated there six hours later when the night sky lightened to a gray foggy day, rousing Fareena from her sleep. "Good morning," she said, shaking him out of his thoughts. "Good morning," he replied. "Fareena, tell me this. What do we know about the about the Ancient Citadel?" "Very little," Fareena admitted, splashing cold water on her face. She let out a low gasp as the shock of the water roused her completely from her sleep. "Of it's history, we know next to nothing. Elcaria and the others have fought the undead there when they strayed into the desert and troubled the desert folk. Bone magi, skeletal warriors, liches, lich lords, mummies....." "Impressive power," Quimius mused. "Power which springs from the yearning for life after death, it seems." "Aye, but it shouldn't trouble us," Fareena said soothingly. "For the most part, they keep in their fortress and trouble not the living, except for those who trespass upon their lands. We'll ride past it quickly and be off to the deserts before any of their guards can trouble us." "But what if we do trespass and sneak into the keep?" Quimius asked. Fareena looked at him in shock. "Are you mad?" "What if the secret to the Lenmir resides within that keep?" Quimius asked. "What's more, the residents of the Ancient Citadel sounds entirely evil." "More reason not to knock on their front door," Fareena grumbled. "Shouldn't we discover what they are doing in there?" Quimius urged. "You know our words. We are the last light which holds back the coming darkness. How can we hold back the darkness if we do not know what they are doing?" Fareena rolled her eyes heavenward. "I only hope I'll live to regret this! If they turn me into a rotting corpse, I swear I'm coming after you!" Quimius flashed her that wry grin of his again. "I wouldn't object to being pursued by you!" * * * * * They left the majority of their goods and their hobbled steeds by their campsite, deeming it safe enough until they returned. Fareena removed a mark scroll from her pack and enchanted a runestone which would bring them back to their campsite. "The power of the moons is weak here in Ilshenar. More specifically, Felucca which governs the return of those using recall, is weak here. That is why it is almost impossible to recall into Ilshenar from great distances. Our campsite is not far from the Citadel, however, so our magic should be able to bring us here." Then, they set off for the bridge, steeling themselves to dispatch the first of the guardians. To their surprise, however, they found naught but shattered and blackened bones. "Someone has come before us it seems," Quimius remarked. Quickly, they crossed the long span of dark grey stone but at the end of the bridge, they quickly took cover. Before them, a small army was laying siege to the citadel. Rotting corpses lunged at warriors while crackling energy vortexes, brilliant to the eye, were howling as they locked into mortal combat with the powerful undead. Fareena pointed. Along the south wall of the keep, a narrow stony path wound between the wall and a precipice which dropped down to the water below. "We can't knock on the front gates to let us in so let us see if there is a way we can scale the wall over there." Nodding, Quimius followed her down the trail. The path led down to the water, so they halted at the highest point in the stone. Fareena removed a rope and a grapple hook from her pack, then paused to listen. After a moment, she said, "I hope their attention is entirely diverted to the battle at the gate." It took four tries to get the grapple to catch and secure itself, but the two explorers were soon shinnying up the rope. Fareena went first, pulling herself over agiley Quimius quickly joined her and they crouched on the bailey, surveying the scene below. It was as Fareena hoped. Bone knights, shades, and rotting corpses crowded at the gates entrance. Even as they watched, two new skeletal knights pushed their way out of the ground and rushed off to join the battle. There was no sign of the lich masters. "It is now or never," Quimius said, securing his rope and letting it drop into the courtyard. He swung over the ledge and dropped down, using the rope to slow my descent. Fareena quickly followed and they rushed like shadows across the courtyard, keeping beneath the wall of the inner keep. There was only one entrance that they could see, an ancient solid oak door which looked as forbidden as the rest of the dark keep. Fareena shook her head. "I cannot believe I'm about to walk in the front door of a lich's castle!" she hissed fiercely. Quimius had to grin at the absurdity of the situation he had gotten them into. He turned the handle on the door and was surprised to find it unlocked. The hinges groaned as he opened the door, but nothing stirred within the dusty foyer. The place was indeed ancient and in disrepair. It seemed the dead did not trouble themselves with cleanliness. A broad staircase stood at the end of the foyer and archways opened into rooms on both sides. One room held old decaying bookshelves and many tomes were scattered across the ground. The other looked to have been more of a sitting room, once upon a time. Furniture was overturned, while other furniture was covered in dusty dust covers. Long streamers of spider webbing hung from the chandeliers and draped the walls and corners. "How can spiders endure the dead?" Fareena wondered softly. Quimius held up his hand and listened carefully. Through a set of double doors, he heard... "Voices," he whispered. "Voices of the dead raised in magical incantations." Fareena nodded and pointed to another set of double doors in the other room indicating she heard the same thing. Quimius's curiosity was nearly unbearable, but his desire for life was greater. He had no wish to alert the undead to their presence. Fareena, ever decisive in her actions, was already making her way cautiously up the stairs. At the top, they found two more doors. "This is it," Fareena whispered, her voice breathless with tension. "If we are to continue exploring, we must choose a door." Quimius seemed about to reply, but then they heard a noise behind the south door. If he weren't so scared, Quimius would've laughed at the stealthful way in which they rushed over and pressed themselves up against the wall where the door would open. He felt like a naughty child sneaking out of bed at night, hoping not to be caught by their parents. The door creaked open and a bone magi, resplendid in faded arcane robes, strolled out the door and walked down the stairs. Fareena grabbed Quimius's hand and rushed through the door, closing it quietly behind her. Quimius stared in awe at the room, which was lined with bookshelves. "What a treasure trove," he breathed, wondering what stories and knowledge lay concealed within. Fareena, meanwhile had crossed the room and was already listening at the door there. "There is nothing within," she said quietly. "Others of our order have been here before, but none have searched the top floor. Let us see what's there. If this place has a gate, it would be up top!" Quimius agreed and they slipped into the next room, finding it full of wrecked beds so ancient that Quimius imagined they'd crumble if touched. It seemed as if the dead still rested in them, on occasion, for there were shreds of mummy wrappings and on occasional bone or piece of rotted flesh here and there. "Even in death, former mortals find it hard to give up old habits," Quimius remarked. A door in the far corner led to another stairway up and Fareena stealthfully padded up the steps, her mace in hand. The room above was large and forbidden, the dark stone of the keep making it seem dark and ominous. The lone brazier in the room gave off a hellish light and feeble light. An ancient carpet, once majestic and expensive, lay in tatters on the ground. Books were strewn across it carelessly and a bookshelf still stood on one side. Directly in front of the stairway stood a workbench filled with bubbling beakers and smoking potions. Two suits of ornate armor flanked the workbench and Quimius paused, fearful that some magic might animate them. They mere stared on stoically, however, as the intruders explored the area. Fareena searched along the room's edges, examining a display case where curious items were stored, a scimitar among them. She reached out to open the case and retrieve the sword, which looked magical, but hesitated. "Careful Quimius, I think this is warded by spells. Be careful what you touch!" Quimius nodded but saw no such wardings on the bookshelf. He snatched a few journals and stuffed them in his pack, hoping to examine them at a safer location to learn more of the undead in this mysterious citadel. His search continued, but was momentarily halted as he tangled himself up in a mass of spider webbing. As he wiped the sticky strands out of his face, he chanced to glance out a window and met the cold blazing eyes of a lich guard out back. His blood froze as the lich stared malevolently up at him. "Uh Fareena, I think we've been discovered," Quimius murmured. Fareena rushed over to look out. The lich moved closer to the back wall, staring up at them, but made no move to enter the house. "Perhaps the intrepid adventurers outside are forcing him to stay out back," Fareena hoped. "Let us hurry! I found a chest here. If we can contrive a way to get it open, it might hold a clue for us. I see no portal, however." The chest proved to be secure. "Would that Aesla were here to pick the lock!" Quimius said mournfully, his curiosity unsatiated. "We should go," Fareena said. "I see nothing else in here that could transport us to the Lenmir." Quimius's gaze scanned the room one last time. Then his eyes fell on the carpet. "What about beneath the carpet?" he asked. Just then, however, the two friends heard a distant creaking which sounded eerily like the front door they had entered. They glanced stupidly at one another for a frozen moment, almost comical in Quimius's imagination, before raised voices downstairs alerted them of the danger. Fareena glanced out the front and cursed. "The army has withdrawn a ways. The lich is free to raise the alarm!" She rushed over to the far corner of the room, as far from the stairs as she could and drew forth the rune she had marked. "Hurry, recall out of here!" "Ladies first!" Quimius said gallantly, though his voice was unsteady. He could hear many doors being opened below and the sepulchral voices of lich lords being raised in anger. Fareena didn't dare argue for hesitation at this point could cost them their lives. "Kal Ort Por!" she chanted, laying her hands over the rune and she promptly vanished to safety. Quimius came forward and began chanting, "Kal Ort--" His chant was interrupted by a throaty, sepulchral chuckle. Two lich lords, their eyes gleaming malevolently, crested the top of the stairs. A chill flowed from them and their cold hands were extended, seeking to suck the very life from him. His tongue felt heavy and his voice faltered. His spell fizzled piteously and Quimius knew he was dead. Instinct took over at that point. Quimius leaped at the workbench, shattering potions and sending up a billowing smoke. He somersaulted over the lich lord as it swung a vicious clawed hand at him. It missed and he landed in a dead run, making for the stairs. The lich sentry and several bone magi were pounding up the stairs, however. He scrambled and ran to the other corner of the room. A ladder he had not noticed before rose up through an open trapdoor in the roof. Quimius leaped for the ladder, his adrenaline giving him speed and agility. His foot hit one of the middle steps and he tried to propel himself through the opening. Alas, the old wood would not support so desperate a strain and it cracked beneath him. Quimius lunged and managed to grab hold of the edge of the trap door. Using all his strength, he heaved himself up, but felt a bone numbing cold as a clawed hand closed around his boot. He pulled and his boot came free. Quimius scrambled out into the pristine light of the early morning and he slammed shut the trap door. "An Por" he chanted on the trapdoor, magically locking it. Then, "In Jux" to entrap it. He knew those feeble spells would not stop the lich lords, nor seriously harm them, but he needed time. He rushed over to the edge of the citadel's roof, gazing across the courtyard, past the waters of the Termir Flam to where their campsite lay. The early morning fog had burned off and the land seemed so vividly bright and clear, as though newly painted by the hands of the gods. The beauty of it made Quimius's heart ache, this beauty which he had taken for granted for most of his life. Now that his life was in danger, his senses were alive and he was aware of all that he might lose. He saw Fareena there as well, a tiny figure standing helplessly at the edge of the water. He wasn't sure if she saw him. She must only know anguish right now, he thought sadly. All these thoughts he was not consciously aware of. They passed through his mind like the gentle caress of the cool breeze upon his fear-fevered skin. He would only recall these thoughts much later, but for now his mind screamed at him for survival. He was too far up to jump and the courtyard was filling with skeletal warriors anyway. Quimius dropped his pack and took out his rope and grapple. He cast it for the outer wall and chanted, "Ort Por Ylem," using the telekinesis to ensure the hook caught on the stone merilons of the outer wall. As he secured his end of the rope onto the roof, he heard the click of his magical lock being undone. Quimius donned his pack again and took hold of the rope, praying it was secure enough to hold his weight. An explosion behind him alerted him that his magical trap had gone off, but the lich lords charged through nonetheless in a cloud of smoke and fury. Quimius leaped... ...and slid down the rope, his palms burning from the friction. The outer wall was a good ten feet shorter than the Citadel roof and he picked up good speed--too much speed. He slammed painfully into the outer wall, his vision blurring from the impact. He nearly lost his grip on the rope, but the stinging in his hands helped clear his mind. He struggled onto the walkway as the skeletal warriors milled at the base of the wall. Turning, he saw a lich lord raising it's clawed hand to unleash death at him. Quimius turned and leaped off the wall, diving into the icy cold water of the Termir Flam. * * * * * "Insane! Absolutely insane you are!" Fareena shook her head, but her grin was as bright as the sun. She was bandaging up Quimius's badly torn hands and her herbal wraps were helping to ease the pain in his bruised ribs. He could hardly move. Once the adrenaline had worn off, the pain had nearly overwhelmed him. When she was done, he flexed his fingers and immediately groaned at the pain. "Remind me to wear gloves next time!" he muttered. "A little pain and skin in exchange for your life, that's a fair bargain. Perhaps you should take up the life of a merchant," Fareena grumbled good-naturedly. "Far too sedentary a life for me, I think," Quimius said, reclining onto the soft grass of the campsite, enjoying the feel of the sun warming him. "Especially now. I see the world with clearer eyes right now." "The threat of death certainly makes you appreciate life all that much more," Fareena agreed. "I never feel so alive as when I'm fighting for my life." Quimius glanced over at his friend. She was a skilled warrior, but just one mistake could prove fatal for anyone. The thought made him sad. "Perhaps we should wise up and start opening our eyes to this beauty every day of our lives. We should cherish every moment, from the mundane like forcing our way through the marketplace throngs of Western Britain to the extraordinary like standing in the midst of the splendor of Reg Volom." A slow and thoughtful smile spread over Fareena's face. "Good advice. We're no nearer to finding the Lenmir Anfinmottas, but perhaps this fools quest was worth it after all."