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A New Twist to an Old Adversary, part 3by Geoff Gander
With a final strain of exertion, the figure crawled over the last rampart of the steep, rocky hill. Cold, driving rain lashed the exposed flesh of his face and hands, and plastered his dark hair to his scalp. Gaining a brief respite in the lee of a jagged boulder protruding from the ground, he stood in silence, relishing the relief of not being needled by the torrential downpour.
He was late. He should have given himself more time to make the journey from his home in Selenica, but then again, he did not take into account the turmoil of recent years, and of the fact that many an honest man had taken up banditry to survive. The attack was amazingly quick and brutal; it seemed to be over before it began, just as the rain began. Now he was here, wherever that was. His escorts dead, his coach long since smashed and torched, he still had to return to the Sanctuary.
It would be a violation of protocol, to be certain. He would no doubt be penalised severely by his superiors, but he would never reach the Sanctuary on foot. Gazing down at his right hand, at the mottled green ring resting on his index finger, he willed the change. He could feel his skin ripple, change, and harden. His arms thickened, his hands began to wither, and two other appendages grew from his sides. When it was finished, he felt relief at once more being in possession of his true form. Silently, wings outstretched, he took to the air, and sought the Sanctuary.
To an untrained observer, the Sanctuary was almost invisible from the ground. High in the Cruth Mountains, it was composed of two needle-thin towers, built atop two tall peaks. Each tower was riddled with large holes, from which bizarre creatures flew, or into which others glided. These creatures were alien to Mystara, possibly alien to this plane of existence, but yet they had been here for many centuries - watching.
"What have you to report?", asked one such being, its buzzing voice echoing in the small chamber deep beneath the towers.
"My First One, I have little to report at this time, save for the loss of my companions, whom you wisely stationed with me in the human city of Selenica," another responded, the city's name sounding unnatural in their alien tongue.
"All is not well. How did this loss come to pass, and why did you not utilise your other form on your voyage here? Our scouts reported your approach many hours ago, and it was they who witnessed your change."
"First One, if I was to arrive at the appointed hour, it was necessary for me to do so. To do otherwise would have resulted in further tardiness, and possibly the existence of the Sanctuary may have been divulged, if I were for some reason...prevented from making the ascent."
"This is true. We are well aware of the political turmoil endemic in this region, and of the potential threat this poses to our presence here. If our supervision of human activities is to remain uninterrupted and successful, we must be prepared to take risks. A rear patrol has retrieved the remains of your companions, and their rings. All of the rings have been accounted for."
"That is well, First One. Our position in the eastern region of the human nation called 'Darokin' would be jeopardised if our means of disguising ourselves were discovered. As you are aware from my previous reports, while the humans in Selenica appear to be far more cosmopolitan than first believed, it was in my survey group's opinion that reactions to our presence in this region would be unfavourable at best. Humans living in more remote regions can be expected with considerable accuracy to react with fear, or open hostility. Rest assured, First One, that the safety of the rings was paramount."
"Your dedication and efficiency is commendable. These humans are strange, savage creatures. When we served Those Who Watch From Beyond, we considered the simple hominids to be little more than potential slaves for our Masters. Our beliefs were revised considerably with the rise of the nation known as 'Thyatis'. As you recall, our earliest spies marched among their armies against the other hominids, the Alphatians, and they reported surprisingly intelligent tactical decisions, as well as refined use of magic. Though the Alphatians were victorious on several occasions, these Thyatians have proven to be highly resourceful creatures. Definitely worthy subjects of examination.
"Now, tell me of Selenica."
"First One, as I indicated earlier, there is little to report at this time. Bandits roam the countryside, and tensions have arisen on occasion with the short hominid tribes to the northeast of the city, those creatures named 'dwarves'. The matters of the disputes are, as always, incomprehensible. Within the city, the dominant elite maintain their hold on local affairs, though some elements of the lower classes appear restive. I predict political turmoil within the next ten turnings of the season.
"Some members of the human subrace known as the 'Ylari' have migrated to the city within the recent period, bringing cultural and political influences whose ultimate consequences I have yet to deduce. May I ask, First One, of events reaching your attention?"
"Blackhold to the east remains loyal to our old Masters, as always. They still meddle in the affairs of the nation known as 'Karameikos', specifically that region known as the 'Black Eagle Barony' - I will never understand the terminology employed by these humans. We have gained this information only because our spies have proven resourceful, for you are of course aware of the Word of our former Masters, that any holding of the Zhochal that dares abandon the faith will be destroyed."
"I am aware, First One, and it is only due to our prowess that we have survived these 300 years since our break with the Masters. This knowledge is of interest to me; our foes are engaged, and where they are engaged, they cannot direct their energies elsewhere. We thus have time to bolster our defences for the battle that must come.
"Have you any directives for me to pursue, First One?"
"I do. You will return to Selenica and resume your surveillance activities. Exercise extreme caution, as we have reason to believe Blackhold may be preparing an offensive, and as a surveyor, you are vulnerable. Observe especially those activities pertaining to political developments regarding Karameikos and Thyatis, and seek to build support for an expedition against this so-called Black Eagle. We know he is a Servant of Those From Beyond. He must be removed, preferably by the humans themselves. Use whatever means are most efficient to the achievement of this goal. You may go."
At the east gate of Selenica, days later, a well-dressed figure passed by the guards, and disappeared into the streets.