Nimrood strode the high parapet of his castle, his black cloak streaming out behind him. His raven-black hair—shot through with streaks of white like the lightning flashing among the black storm clouds he watched and reveled in—flew in wild disarray. The booming cataclysms of thunder echoed in the valleys below his mountaintop perch, and the evil wizard cackled at each one.
“Blow, wind! Thunder, roar! Lightning, rend the heavens! I, Nimrood, command it! Ha, ha, ha!”
The sorcerer had no power over the storm; it was a pure thing of nature. Instead, he seemed to draw a strange vitality from its awesome force as he gazed out toward the bay, where Pyggin’s ship lay at anchor. Nimrood could not see the ship; his castle was built upon the topmost peak of the highest of the rugged mountains that rose out of the sea to form his forsaken island. The bay was a league or more away as the gull flew.
The storm, spreading its anvil high into the atmosphere, flew on reckless wings in from the sea. Nimrood watched, his thin old body shaking in a paroxysm of demented glee; his sinister features lifted upward toward the storm, illuminated by the raking streaks of lightning. The wizard chanted, danced, and laughed, thrilling to the storm as it passed overhead.
At last the heavy drops of rain began plummeting to earth. Loath to leave, but hating this wetness more, Nimrood the Necromancer turned and darted back into his chamber.
“Euric?” he shouted, throwing off his black cape. “Light the incense. I feel like following the storm.” His henchman scuttled ahead of him as he descended the spiraling stone stairs to a vaulted room below. The room was bare stone except for a five-sided stone altar standing in the center.
Euric, with torch in hand, flitted around the altar, lighting the pots of incense that stood on low metal tripods, one at each corner of the altar. “Leave me!” shouted Nimrood when he had finished.
Nimrood stretched himself upon the altar and folded his hands over his breast. He let his breathing slow and become more shallow as the incense swirled around him. Soon he dropped into a deep trance, and the sorcerer’s breathing seemed to stop altogether.
As Nimrood sank into the trance, his mind rose up as if through layers of colored smoke, ascending on the pungent vapors of incense. When the smoke cleared, he was flying above the earth in the face of the onrushing storm.
The wizard closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he had taken the form of a kestrel, soaring in the turbulent air. His body tingled with excitement as he played among the rolling clouds, diving steeply and rising again in the blink of an eye.
As he wheeled ecstatically through the rushing wind, he watched the land slide away beneath him. Directly below he saw his castle, dark upon its crown of mountain. To the west, falling sharply away to the bay, the thickly wooded hills hunched like the backs of tormented beasts. Beyond them, the glimmering crescent of the bay itself.
In a sudden blinding burst of lighting, his sharp kestrel’s eyes spied something in the bay. I wonder what that might be? he thought to himself. I will fly closer for a better look.
Nimrood dived into the wind, streaking to earth like a comet and heading for the bay.
“A ship!” he squawked when another stroke of lightning revealed the vessel’s outline. Then he sailed out over the bay. “Could it be Pyggin’s ship? I did not expect them so soon.”
Then, hovering in the air above the bay, the wind whipping through his feathers, Nimrood saw far below a small boat break away from the side of the ship. “Ach!” he screeched. “My guests have arrived!”
With that, he flew back to the castle on the speed of the racing wind and swept into the vaulted chamber through an arrow loop in the wall. He alighted on the edge of the altar and became a wisp of gray smoke lingering in the air before dissolving above his own entranced form beneath.
As soon as the smoke vanished, the wizard’s eyes snapped open and he sat upright with a jolt. “Euric!” he shouted. “Come here at once!
“Where is that fool servant?” he muttered, swinging down from the altar. “Euric!” he shouted again; then he heard his servant’s quick steps in the corridor beyond as Euric came running to his master’s call. Nimrood met him at the door.
“You called, wise one?” The pitiful Euric bowed and scrabbled before the sorcerer.
“Yes, toad. We have work to do. Our long-awaited guests are even now arriving. We must prepare to meet them. Call the guards. Assemble them before my throne; I will give them their instructions. Hurry now! No time to lose!”
It was the third inn they had tried that morning, and this one sat down on the wharf at the water’s edge. Toli and Quentin stood looking at the squeaking, weather-beaten shingle that swung to and fro on the brisk wind. It read FLYING FISH in bold blue letters hand-painted with some care by the owner, whose name, Baskin, was also painted beneath the legend.
“This is the last public house in Bestou, I think,” remarked Quentin. “This must be where they stayed. Come on.” He jerked his head for Toli to follow him inside. Toli, stricken with the jittery bafflement that most Jher held for all cities of any size, followed woodenly as he gazed along the waterfront.
“Excuse me, sir. Are you Baskin?” Quentin inquired politely of the first man they encountered within.
The man looked up at him over a stack of coins he was counting, his eyes blinking in the light of the open door. “My good fellow!” he shouted, somewhat surprised.
“Are you Baskin, sir?” asked Quentin again, startled by the man’s unusual manner.
“At your service. Indeed, yes! If it is Baskin you want, Baskin you have found. What can I do for you”—he cast a sharp and not altogether approving glance toward Toli—“for you two young sirs?”
“We are looking for a party traveling through here—through Bestou some time ago.”
The man scratched his head with a quizzical look on his face. “That could describe a fair number, I’ll warrant.”
“There were four of them altogether . . .”
“That helps, but not much. Many merchants travel in numbers.”
“One was a lady. Very beautiful.”
“That’s better . . . but no, I cannot think of anyone like that. Who did they sail with?”
“I . . . I do not know, sir.”
“They stayed here, you say?”
“They may have . . . That is, I cannot say for certain that they did. This is the last place in Bestou they could have stayed . . . if they did.”
“Let me see,” said Baskin, pulling his chin. “You are looking for a party who came you don’t know when, and stayed you don’t know where, and sailed with you don’t know who. Is that right?”
Quentin’s face flushed scarlet. His gaze fell to his feet.
“Oh, don’t mind me, lad. I only wanted to get the facts . . .”
“I am sorry to have troubled you,” said Quentin, turning to leave.
“Are you sure there is nothing else you can think of ?” Baskin inquired after them.
Quentin stopped and considered this for a moment, then said, “They were bound for Karsh.”
At that word the innkeeper jumped down from his stool and came around the table to where Quentin and Toli stood. “Shh! Do not say that name in here. Bad luck! But, hmm . . .” He rubbed a long hand over his high forehead. “I seem to remember them now. Yes.
“There were three and the lady. One tall, fidgety. Looked to be a man of quick temper. The other big, stout. Dressed like a priest somewhat, though no priest I ever saw. They had a servant of sorts with them. A sturdy man. Didn’t see much of him. And the lady—beautiful she may have been, though you couldn’t prove it by me. She wore men’s clothing all the while. Disguised, perhaps?”
“Yes, that’s them!” cried Quentin.
“So I gather. They wanted to go to . . . that place. Had difficulty— and who would not—finding any honest captain to take them.”
“Did they find someone?”
“Yes, I think so. They must have. They left early the first sailing day. Paid the bill the night before and were gone, along with everyone else, at dawn.”
“What day was it?” Quentin was almost breathless with relief at having found word of his friends.
“Oh, it must be ten, perhaps twelve days ago now. Yes, at least that long. Perhaps longer—let me see . . .” The innkeeper turned and went back to his table. A hutch stood nearby, and he fished in one of the cubbyholes for a parchment, which he at length brought out. “Yes. Here it is. I remember now. They left their horses with the smith up the way. I have the record now.” He pushed the paper under Quentin’s nose.
“Did they say whose ship would carry them to—”
“No, I never did hear. But there would be those who would risk such a trip for enough gold, I would think. Though many would not, as I say.”
Baskin looked confidentially at Quentin and asked, “You are not thinking of following them, are you?” He read the answer in Quentin’s eyes before Quentin could speak. “Forget it. No good can come from it. I will tell you what I told them: stay far away from that place. I told them, and I tell you. Go back to where you came from. Don’t go anywhere near that evil land. Stay away!”