“But if the Hidden Lord teaches that each of us has in our heart a dark seed of weakness, then why would He bestow upon his high priest the title of “The Heart?”” Erin asked, incredulous.
“Ah, but The Hidden Lord also admonishes us never to reveal all that we know, child! Our greatest strength is our secrecy.” Argetta replied “Surely, you do not think that even a priestess such as myself would know His thoughts. It is enough that he has given us his Heart, and that we follow the teachings the Heart passes on to us.”
Frustrated by the dodge, Erin pressed “How can I know what teachings come from Vecna if I know not who the Heart is?”
The two women sat in the chapel, as they often had in the three years since Erin’s encounter with her god. The Whispered Lord had not spoken to her often in the intervening years–He had made it clear that she had not yet earned His full support. So Erin had taken it upon herself to seek out his teachings through the religion which worshiped Him. Increasingly, however, she found herself frustrated by the shortcomings in the dogma spouted by low level priests like Argetta.
Just as the older woman opened her mouth to respond, Immar stormed into the chapel, throwing the doors aside with a reverberating thump as they struck the walls. Erin stood and turned to face him immediately.
“How was your meeting with Mayor Geonlad, Master?” Erin asked. Normally she would be nowhere near so formal, but she did not want to give her teacher any excuse to focus his mood on her.
“That piss drinking son of a troll!?” Immar shouted, “That pompous bag of flatulence!?” Erin did her best not to quirk a smile, but the corner of her mouth quivered a bit. Immar was not very good at cursing.
“I take it then, sir, that the audience he requested did not go well?” she asked. From the corner of her eye she saw Argetta skulking out of the chapel, and very much wished she could join the stealthy old hag. “Is he still claiming that the tower is within the bounds of Heathrop to try and extort you for taxes?”
Immar took several deep breaths, which seemed to reduce him from a towering pillar of anger, back to an Illumian man. “Would that it was just the large words of a small man as it has been in the past. Today he presented forged land titles to that effect before the captain of the town’s guard. We are to comply within a fortnight, or he will order my arrest.” At this, Erin did laugh, though only for a moment before Immar’s glare made her cover her mouth to straighten her face. As quickly as she could, she explained herself.
“What hope could Geonlad have of restraining you? His city guard can barely keep on top of a rambunctious drunkard!”
“Paladins,” Immar replied, his tone still seething. “Eight of them, Cuthbertians. Apparently here to help the ‘goodly’ people of Heathrop by dealing with the wizards who are ‘abusing their power to avoid their legal responsibilities.'”
Now Erin was starting to feel angry too. “Gods damned paladins!” she cursed through gritted teeth. “Always more interested in being ‘heroes of the common people’ than they are in doing things right.”
Immar rubbed his eyes, then turned and began to walk out of the chapel. “I must meditate and pray.” he said, not bothering to look behind him. “Find Argetta and tell her I would like to see her in my chambers, then get some sleep. In the morning we will discuss whatever plan seems best.”
Erin nodded, and moved ahead of him out the door so she could find the priestess. She avoided looking back at her teacher. Eight paladins was a very real danger, and after all these years she knew Immar was not likely to pay for something he did not owe. She was afraid, and did not want the older wizard to see the fear she knew was evident on her face.
Loattie climbed onto Erin’s face just before dawn, and hopped up and down. Erin awoke, and made exaggerated sputtering sounds of disgust until the frog hopped back onto the bed side table. She gave her familiar a withering glare with her one good eye.
“I know I told you to wake me up in the morning, but shouldn’t you have figured out a more pleasant way to do it by now?” The frog chirped throatily back at her.
“Oh shut up.” Erin spat back, never much a fan of mornings.
Uncovering her Everburning Candle, Erin sat on the floor and cracked open her worn and trusty spellbook to begin memorizing the spells she thought she might need that day. By the time she had finished laying the mental framework required for casting, the first rays of the morning sun had begun to filter through the trees outside of the tower. She washed quickly before rummaging through her armoire for the day’s clothes. She had (somewhat clumsily) sewn additional pockets to all of her shirts and pants to store any spell components. And, of course, each had an extra pocket for Loattie.
Before rushing off to meet with Immar, Erin took a moment to stand in front of the mirror. She checked to make sure her hair was neat, and to quickly adjust the way her clothes rested around her increasingly curvaceous figure. She was not a vain woman, but she had discovered the potential of boys to be very entertaining. Though, she had also learned that most of them needed to be singed a bit in order to get them to do it right–but she didn’t mind. Burns healed.
Thoroughly satisfied that she looked alluring, Erin briskly walked out of the room, scooping Loattie off of a table and into her breast pocket as she did so. She quickly ascended the staircase, which gently wound along the inside edge of the tower’s cylindrical frame, eventually opening up into Immar’s laboratory on the top floor. There she found her teacher surrounded by a dense forest of papers. She saw maps, letters of correspondence, and tomes covering a variety of subject matter, covering not only his desk but the floor around him.
“Master?” Erin asked from the stairwell, unsure of whether to approach through the maze of documents. Immar stood and turned so fast that his wooden chair upended itself.
“Erin! Come here! You must see this.”
Erin could see even from across the room that the older wizard had not slept since the previous night. Before moving to join him at his desk, she moved to the windows and drew back the heavy curtains, allowing the early morning light to fill the room. Immar winced and brought up his hand to cover his face.
“It’s morning already…?” he started, before apparently deciding that the hour was irrelevant, and waving emphatically for Erin to join him.
She did, picking her way through the papers on the floor as gracefully as she could to join her teacher at the table. Immar had never demonstrated the absent minded eccentricity often attributed to wizards before. Erin could not wait to learn what had caused him to start now.
Among the items on the table was a book Erin had perused once or twice before, entitled “Tome of War: The Arcane, and the Mundane.” Speaking as a scholar it was of only minor note, detailing what a wizard named Feyun The Crimson Blade believed to be the optimum application of spells in warfare. Presently it was open to a brief chapter detailing the problems posed to a wizard by paladins.
Erin’s eyes bulged, and before Immar had even said a word she spun on him, carelessly tearing some papers beneath her heel.
“You mean to fight them!?” she nearly shouted, aghast at the thought.
“Of course I do.” he replied, in the same tone he might use if she had just misunderstood the simplest of cantrips.
“But there are only the two of us and Argetta!” Erin replied, “And the tower isn’t exactly a fortress.”
“Which is why we’re bringing in more people, and won’t be fighting from the tower.”
“Indefensible as the tower is, I hardly think the forest will be a better place.”
“Which is why we won’t be defending.” Immar continued.
Erin, still unsettled by the idea of fighting trained and seasoned warriors, unconsciously cocked her head to the side and furrowed her brow, unable to decipher her teacher’s cryptic leading statements. Immar let her dangle for several moments before taking pity and making the leap of logic for her.
“We are going to take Heathrop.”
Erin felt her knees weaken, and fumbled for the chair, righting it and sitting down to avoid falling over. The idea seemed ludicrous, but Immar was clearly serious. Of course, he was a powerful wizard, and though he didn’t make much use of them he was fairly well connected within the Illumian covens of his people. But there were well over 1200 people in Heathrop, and she doubted Immar could muster even a tenth of that.
“Then what?” was all she managed to ask.
“Then,” Immar continued, straightening his back and looking as commanding as he could “We hold it. We rule it. And we guide it into prosperity with the light of intellect.”
Erin was silent. She had been fearful about the paladins before, but had gone to sleep confident that Immar would overcome. Now…
“What role then am I to play?” she asked, looking up to meet Immar’s eyes.
Immar put a hand on her shoulder, and let another moment of silence pass before he spoke.
“You are my right hand, my dear. You will lead a portion of those who join with me. It will be dangerous, but I have confidence you’re up to the task.”
“Master,” Erin began, “I am a scholar.”
“You are a wizard, Erin.” Immar replied. “One of the finest wizards I’ve ever seen at such a young age. This task may test you, but you’ve never failed a test I’ve set before you yet.”
The younger wizard stood, trying to wipe away the small welling of tears in her eye without her teacher seeing. She took a step towards the table, and unrolled a map of the surrounding area which she found there.
“So,” she asked, “what is the plan?”
The room was much cleaner two weeks later when Erin stood next to Immar as he explained his plan to the five Illumian commanders. They, and their men, had been sent in response to the wizard’s request for aid from his cabal. Erin had insisted that the 50-some odd warriors would not be enough against a town with a population more than twenty-times that. But Immar had assured her that not nearly a twentieth of the town was so attached to the mayor, and his leadership, that they would fight and die.
“Besides” he had added “even those that will are peasantry who’ve been given swords and called soldiers. An Illumian Warblade is worth a hundred clumsy fighters. It’s the paladins we need to worry about, they’re the real dangerous element here.”
Immar was droning on, pointing at key locations on the map and using minor illusions to better demonstrate his plan. Erin tried to pay attention, but found herself fading out. None of this was new to her–some of it had even been her idea. Simply put, Erin would go into town ahead and organize those few who were among the faithful of The Whispered Lord. On the night of the upcoming festival of high summer, her group would take any action they could to disrupt the town’s ability to defend itself, while the Illumians would quell any major resistance. Immar would personally lead one of the Illumian Tenche, a group of ten soldiers, directly to the center of town where they would capture the Mayor and his family. There were details, but the plan was straightforward.
Straightforward enough that Erin found herself far more interested in the Illumian boy across the room. he was perhaps a year her junior, and most certainly was not in command of a Tenche, as the five other Illumian visitors in the room were. Part of her was curious to learn why he had been invited to attend this meeting when the rest of the soldiers had been left to wait in the camp erected outside. A much larger part of her, though, was very interested in finding out if he was as well formed as his light leather armor made him look.
Erin barely noticed when the meeting ended, and only turned to look at Immar again once she noticed that everyone else was filing out of the room.
“Will that be all, master?” she asked, hoping he hadn’t already answered that question.
“No, I need you to remain a moment. There are a few final matters for us to discuss.” Immar gestured for her to sit, and she did. He waited until the commanders had left the room before he began.
“You’ll be leaving for Heathrop in the morning, and I need to know that you understand what this role will require of you. It’s just been the three of us here in the tower for most of your life. You’ve never really needed to be a leader before.”
“How difficult can it be?” Erin asked. “You’ve got authority over the faithful in this region, and have put me in charge those in the town. They must do as I command, correct?” Immar bit his cheek.
“It’s not quite that simple, child.” he began, picking his words carefully “Much as I have faith in your abilities, they will still see you as a fifteen year old girl. Many of them will likely have daughters your age, or even older, who they still view as young children.”
“I am no peasant child!” Erin growled, a little more offended at the implied comparison than she knew she should be.
“Precisely why you will be leading them. But if you want them to listen to you at all then you need to be firm with them. You cannot accept any dissent, and you must never show them any fear or indecision. If they view you as weak, then you cannot lead them.”
Erin opened her mouth to respond, but Immar interrupted her and continued. “And you must lead them, Erin. If you fail then so fails the entire conquest, and you and I will both likely lose our lives at the hands of a paladin inquisitor.”
Pursing her lips, Erin merely nodded.
“I haven’t forgotten what’s on the line.” she said, softly, but with a determination in her voice which put Immar’s mind at ease.
“I know you haven’t, my dear girl.” Immar said, leaning forward and placing a hand on top of Erin’s. The two sat silently for a moment, enjoying the familial comfort for as long as they could before the coming battles threatened to separate them forever. Finally, Immar stood.
“I have something for you,” he said, as he walked across the room to one of the tables near the wall and picked up a long shaft wrapped in velvet. “I had thought to make you a proper wizard’s staff, but this seemed more appropriate. I commissioned it a few months ago, and it only just arrived.”
The older wizard handed his student the shaft, and she expectantly unrolled the velvet to reveal a long, expertly crafted war spear, with two additional blades angled back along the shaft.
“It’s called a ‘duom,'” Immar offered, “I was told they are favored weapons among those Warblades who favor the spear.”
Erin turned the weapon over in her hand, admiring the light weight and beautiful craftsmanship.
“It’s magnificent.” she whispered, unable to take her eyes off of it.
“I’m still not sure why you insist on using such unsophisticated weaponry when you have spells available to you, but I’ve never been able to change your mind so you may as well have the best tools available.” Erin looked up and met her teacher’s eyes.
“Thank you.” she said. “I will use it to ensure your victory in the coming battles.” A little flustered by the emotional exchange, Immar changed the subject.
“Speaking of, there is one last thing we need to discuss.” without waiting for an acknowledgement from Erin, he turned and called loudly “Byert!” Almost immediately, the young Illumian Erin had been eying earlier was on the stairs, and moving to stand at attention before Immar. Erin quickly made her face stern, not wanting the emotional moment she had just shared with her teacher to be on display.
“Erin, this is my nephew, Byert. He will serve as your guard during this offensive.”
“What!?” shouted Erin. “Am I now some child who needs a chaperone whilst I overthrow a government for you?”
“Do not overestimate yourself, young wizard!” Immar replied, raising his voice to match her indignant shouting. “There is a limit to how many spells you can cast without rest. No wise mage enters battle without a fighter to protect them.”
Erin refrained from pointing out that the spear fighting skills her teacher had discouraged were useful in precisely that situation. Whether she liked it or not, though, he was right. Even Immar himself would be fighting with ten trained warblades by his side.
“Very well, master.” Erin said, mustering as much of a respectful tone as she could through clenched teeth. “But you-” she continued, whirling to face her ‘protector.’ The warning comment she had ready for him died on her tongue, however, when she saw he was kneeling on the floor.
“What are you doing?” the two wizards asked, almost simultaneously.
“Lady Erin,” the boy said, his voice resolute and his head bowed “I vow I will serve and protect you faithfully, with my life if need be.”
Erin and Immar looked at each other, a little confused by the young warrior’s zealous pronouncement.
“Um…rise?” Erin ventured, and he quickly did. The two youths stared at one another blankly, both waiting for the other to speak. The silence might have continued indefinitely had Immar not stepped in.
“The two of you will leave at first light for Heathrop. Now get some rest.”
The young warrior crossed his arms over his chest in a formal Illumian salute, spun on his heel, and marched back down the stairs. Annoying as Erin found him, she couldn’t help but watch him with lusty eyes, and wonder if he still had his cherry. She was in the middle of enjoying that thought when Immar grabbed firm hold of her ear and painfully twisted.
“He’s my nephew, you cad!” The older wizard scolded, only half joking.