In Lord of Runes, when Count Varian Jeggare is bequeathed a dangerous magical book by an old colleague, he and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan find themselves on the trail of a necromancer bent on becoming the new avatar of an ancient and sinister demigod—one of the legendary runelords. Along with a team of mercenaries and adventurers, the infamous investigators will need to delve into a secret world of dark magic and the legacy of a lost empire. But in saving the world, will Varian and Radovan lose their souls?
Chapter One: The Acadamae
Radovan had placed seven pebbles on the sundial between the shadow and the next hour. As darkness covered the next tiny stone, he flicked it away. It skittered across the plaza, narrowly missing the toes of a woman hurrying east. By her well-made dress of common cloth, the basket trailing a few errant threads, and the distinctive callus on her finger, I took her for a seamstress. She frowned at Radovan. He offered her a wink and the smirk he refers to as "the little smile." She turned away an instant too late to conceal her own smile.
"A servant will bring me the keys at any moment," I said. "Go."
Radovan stretched, pointing his wicked elbow spurs at the sky. His red leather jacket hung loose on his broad shoulders. The tongue of his belt lolled out from the tighter cinch. In the months it had taken us to reach Korvosa, I estimated he had lost seventeen pounds. He nodded toward the gate. "I don't like the way those guys are looking at you."
I turned to see a trio of students emerging from the Acadamae, the girls laughing at the boy's quip. I could only presume that Radovan referred to the hellspawn guarding the gate. The devil-blooded sentries were notorious throughout Korvosa for abusing students and visitors alike.
One of the guards snarled as the students emerged. "What's so damned funny?"
Unlike Radovan, who boasted he could pass in dim light so long as he avoided the "big smile," these hellspawn would never be mistaken for human. One had vestigial gills and an eel's snout; the other could barely see out from beneath a pair of coiling horns.
The students lowered their heads and hastened past. The horned hellspawn whistled after them. The other turned toward me. His piscine eyes lingered on the sword on my hip and the Ustalavic wolfhound at my heel. He weighed the danger and looked away.
Suppressing a smug smile, I turned to Radovan. "As you can see, 'those guys' know better than to menace a count of Cheliax."
"Not those guys," said Radovan. He plucked another pebble from the sundial and made a catapult of his thumb and middle finger. He aimed at the top of the gate. "Those guys."
A spotted raven, a chimera cat, and a potbellied imp peered down at us.
"Radovan, it would be prudent not to—"
Radovan flicked the stone. The half-black, half-orange cat shrieked and fled along the wall. The raven flew into the safety of the Acadamae grounds, but the devil flew toward us, cursing in the guttural tongue of Hell. It demonstrated an impressive vocabulary and a flair for simile.
"That cat might have been a professor's familiar," I said. I drew the Shadowless Sword and plucked a riffle scroll from my pocket. "Or, worse, a master's."
Radovan shrugged, but I saw by his posture he was prepared to produce a razor-sharp throwing dart or star from one of the many secret pockets in his jacket sleeves. "I was aiming for the imp."
Hovering just beyond reach of my blade, the devil hissed, revealing a mouth full of needle-sharp fangs. Radovan hissed back through his big smile, revealing a jumble of teeth a Mendevian general once compared to a demon's armory.
The imp peeped and flew after its cohorts.
Radovan popped his jaw back into joint. He turned to see where the seamstress had gone.
"You don't mind if I take the night?"
"Look for me at Upslope House tomorrow. I will return there after I finish cataloging Ygresta's library."
"You got too many books already."
"One can never have too many books. Still, I doubt I shall find any worth keeping. Just strive to remain inconspicuous. Stay out of Thief Camp and Old Korvosa."
"Old Korvosa, huh?"
I should have known better than to present Radovan with a forbiddance. By naming the two districts I most wished him to avoid, I practically ensured he would visit them. "The important thing is to avoid Chelish attention. The moment I receive the queen's summons, I am duty-bound to return home."
Thanks to warnings from military friends in Sarkoris, I had thus far avoided the heralds of Her Infernal Majestrix. I knew what message they must carry: Queen Abrogail would demand to know why I sent her a copy of the Lexicon of Paradox rather than the original. I had prepared several excuses, but none would withstand a rigorous interrogation by the inquisitors of Asmodeus. How could I admit that I trusted the crusader queen of Mendev to use the book for the good of all Avistan? How could I conceal my fervent belief that the queen of Cheliax would use it only to further her own power? One sharp question was all it would take to condemn me to impalement upon the tines.
Self-preservation was not my only motive for remaining abroad. What began as a self-imposed exile to escape scandal had become an adventure. Radovan and I had faced many horrors, and wonders too. Some came not from the fabled lands we visited but from within ourselves. One of the wonders—or horrors—within myself remained an unsolved mystery.
And I hoped to find the answer to that mystery soon, here at the Acadamae in Korvosa. Yet as Queen Abrogail's impatience grew, it was only a matter of time before she instructed one of her sorcerers to contact me with a spell. There were ways to avoid such communication, but none I could safely explain to her inquisitors. When I received the summons, by writ or dream, I would answer.
"You'd think she'd cut you some slack now the war's over," Radovan said.
Despite the sun warming my shoulders, I felt a gloom. "The war is never over."
"Come on, boss, lighten up. Take a picnic over to Jeggare Island. Go for a stroll around Jeggare Square. There's a Jeggare Museum, isn't there? You like museums. You like stuff named after you."
"How many times must I tell you—?"
"Yeah, I know. They named those places for your uncle Monte."
"Montlarion Jeggare the explorer, one of the esteemed founders of Korvosa, my accomplished great-great—"
Arnisant pricked up his ears at the sound of irritation in my voice. I patted his shoulder. A sly smile grew at the corner of Radovan's mouth. He was trying to be amusing. As usual, he succeeded more at being trying than at being amusing.
"I just wish you could relax is all," he said. "Ever since we hit town, you've been tense."
"Tense" was too small a word for the vexation I felt since meeting with Toff Ornelos. What I sought from the headmaster was an explanation of why the Acadamae had failed to detect my magical bloodline, which I had discovered only recently. For reasons of their own, the proctors allowed me to engage in a futile struggle to master the science of wizardry when they should have turned me away to develop my innate talents under the tutelage of a sorcerer.
Instead of answers, what the headmaster gave me was news that one of my oldest friends had died having named me executor of his meager estate. Headmaster Ornelos would hear none of my complaints until I had dispensed with what he deemed the more urgent matter.
Yet none of that was Radovan's fault. I looked him in the eye and said, "There is a park."
"Jeggare Green. It is a modest size, but Queen Domina dedicated it to me, not my ancestor."
"'Jeggare Green,'" Radovan mused. "I'll look for it. If you're all right, then I'm going to—" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the vanished seamstress.
Radovan departed at a jog.
I turned back to the hellspawn gatekeepers. They glowered but kept their tongues still. I wondered whether their caution had more to do with my sword or my hound. The Shadowless Sword was swift and Arnisant fearless, but the guards had more to fear from my spells—both those inscribed on the riffle scrolls concealed throughout my coat and those I could summon by force of will, now that I understood that I was a sorcerer rather than a wizard.
The guards turned at the approach of another student from inside the Acadamae grounds. Rather than taunt the woman, they bowed as she passed.
The hem of her skirt swirled about her ankles as she strode toward me with swift grace. Upon each hand she wore a jeweled ring, and around her throat a cameo on a black ribbon. Across her hips hung a plaited belt holding a pair of holstered wands and a tooled-leather pouch, to which she had pinned the silver Acadamae badge that granted her access to the campus. To my surprise, I could not estimate her age more precisely than mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Ordinarily I could make a guess accurate to within two years.
On impulse, I uttered a brief cantrip. The spell indicated powerful magic on the woman's cameo, rings, pouch, and wands, but none on the woman herself.
"Count Varian Jeggare." Her eyes registered surprise as she drew near. "Why, you look entirely rejuvenated, if a bit underfed. You must come to my father's house and let us give you supper."
Unable to recall her name, I bowed and fell back on a banal courtesy: "You are as lovely as ever, my lady."
Her lips quirked—with pleasure or amusement, I could not tell. My inability to read her expression irked me.
My gaze slipped from the woman's deep purple eyes to the cameo at her throat. Carved into the stone was an exquisite death's head moth, its wings dappled in tawny shades fading to ivory.
"Did I see you cast a spell as I approached?" she said.
It was bad form to cast a spell on a fellow noble. "A minor divination, lady, nothing to violate your person. Forgive me. I must strive to shed my wartime habits."
"No apology necessary. We are all grateful to those who held back the Worldwound demons. Besides, no one can cross the campus without being subjected to a few divinations, if not a transmutation when the upperclassmen feel prankish. I just didn't think you could do that."
"Cast a spell."
"Ah." My disability was not a well-kept secret, but few were bold enough to mention it to my face.
With a gesture for me to follow, the woman led me through the gates. As we strolled along the gravel path, Arnisant snuffled at her shadow and growled.
"Arnisant, heel!" The hound returned to my side, his gaze locked on the lady's feet. "I beg your pardon. He is usually better behaved. Perhaps he too must shake off the rude habits of war."
The woman lifted her skirt a few inches and examined the soles of her boots. They were of a fashion popular decades earlier, one that I found uncommonly fetching. "Perhaps I stepped in something as I passed the conjurers." She appraised Arnisant, who remained calm. "May I pet him?"
She showed no fear, so I nodded.
The hound remained still as a statue as she stroked the curly gray fur on his head. "What a handsome fellow. And what a fine name for him."
Since I was in Ustalav when I found Arnisant, I named him for the famous general who martyred himself to defeat the Whispering Tyrant. "My grandfather always said, 'Give a dog a good name.'"
"Because others will think you a brute if you call him 'Fang'?"
"For that reason too, but also as a practical blessing. When you give a dog a brutal name, your tone grooms him to become a brutal animal each time you call to him. But a dog hears respect as well as scorn. Call him by a hero's name, and he may become a hero himself."
"In that case, Arnisant must be ready to give his life for you."
That notion troubled me more than it ought, for I had grown fonder of Arnisant than of any other dog I had raised.
We continued our walk across campus. Plots of ornamental foliage provided a Chelish order to the grassy swards between the academic buildings. The spring flowers perfumed the grounds. A bell from the Hall of Summoning tolled the hour. Moments later, students spilled out to enjoy a few minutes outside before their next classes began.
"They look so young, don't they?" said the woman beside me. Her smile should have seemed familiar, yet it did not. Still I could not place a name with her face.
In my memory library, the mental construct I have nurtured for nearly a century, I perused the gallery of every Korvosan aristocrat I had ever met. The woman's black hair and purple eyes suggested she shared my mother's Azlanti heritage, the rarest of bloodlines. She bore none of the other Jeggare features, which my father's elven blood muted in me.
I nodded agreement and smiled before looking away, pretending to take in the scenery while wracking my memory for her identity. As we passed the statue of Acadamae founder Volshyenek Ornelos, I found a clue in his countenance.
I last met unfamiliar members of House Ornelos at the funeral of Fedele Ornelos, one of the finest men I ever had the privilege to call friend. After the memorials, I remained in Korvosa to attend to business. In the evenings I renewed old acquaintances and established new ones. Among the new were young scions of the noble families, including House Ornelos. Children seldom leave an impression on me, but I record their names and ages in my memory library nevertheless.
My escort was surely one of Fedele's nieces, making her the grandniece of Toff Ornelos and thus accounting for the deference the hellspawn guards showed her. No doubt the headmaster had sent his grandniece to keep me and my hundred questions out of his office.
Arnisant woofed as a raven swooped near. Once more I drew the Shadowless Sword from its scabbard, but not to strike. In addition to its swiftness, the blade revealed the truth beneath any illusion. It revealed the raven's true form as that of another imp.
"Don't let them frighten you," said the woman. "The familiars are worse bullies than the guards. Professor Ygresta had the right idea. Each term he would destroy one as an example to the others. They never harried him as they do some of the timid professors."
The Shadowless Sword revealed no illusion on the woman. I put away my blade. "Was he not concerned he would kill a colleague's familiar?"
"Oh, no," she said. "He always summoned the imp himself."
Her anecdote brought a nostalgic smile to my lips.
"So it's true he learned that custom from you?" she said.
"Not the idea of a warning demonstration, but I might have provided the inspiration." Even before the rise of House Thrune, summoning a devil was a mandatory exercise at the Acadamae. There was no requirement to keep the fiend as a familiar, however, nor to let it free to torment the citizens of Korvosa, as so many reckless students do. Though the convulsions I suffered while casting the spell were agonizing, I gladly suffered them again to destroy the fiend after the proctors recorded my success. One less devil in Korvosa. One less inch of the world surrendered to Asmodeus.
As we passed the Hall of Whispers, a stench of boiling urine from the necromantic laboratories wet my eyes. I plucked a scented handkerchief from my sleeve and offered it to the lady.
She waved it away. "After four years among the cauldrons, I became quite immune to the stench."
"Ah." The significance of the moth on her cameo struck me. "You specialized in necromancy."
"Your favorite subject." Her tone indicated that she knew of my disdain for her specialty.
"Ah." She softened her mimicry with a smile. "Uncle Toff warned me that you despise necromancers, but I know that can't be universally true. After all, Professor Ygresta was your friend."
Despite our social disparity, Benigno Ygresta had been a friend of a sort. In fact, he had been perhaps my oldest living friend, although I had seldom seen him in the seven decades since we left the Acadamae. I decided not to mention that we first met when I hired the lowborn Ygresta as my bottle-washer, a menial job he gladly accepted to supplement his paltry income.
"You studied with Ygresta?" I asked.
"He was the one who persuaded me to join the Hall of Whispers. I'd always thought only ghouls and grave robbers would study the art, but he caught my attention by demonstrating the best spell I had ever seen. Eventually, his lectures on the ethical applications of necromancy won me over. His life-matter theory alone should have earned him distinction, if only he could have won over the masters."
I nodded sadly, remembering one of Benigno Ygresta's many shortcomings: he had little talent for the subtle politics of wizards, especially the more conservative masters of the Acadamae. "Ygresta always struggled to express his fancies as proofs the traditional necromancers could embrace."
"I'm more than half certain they were more than fancies," she said. "But you're right: He could never satisfy the masters that they were more than eccentric ideas. Everyone always thought it was another part of his hopeless quest to improve the Acadamae's reputation."
I was familiar with Ygresta's arguments that necromancy was not inherently evil. His points were cogent enough, sometimes even compelling. Yet even if I could overcome my disdain for the ghouls and grave robbers, as my enigmatic companion described her colleagues, I would never break a promise to my mother.
"The professor once told me that you could have been one of the best necromancers at the Acadamae, if only you'd chosen to pursue our specialty."
"Arcane theory was my best subject." It was in practice that I had failed, not in principle. Even through the long decades when I barely dared to cast a meager cantrip, my knowledge of the arcane served me well.
"Let me guess: you studied evocation."
"Did the headmaster tell you that?"
"No one told me anything."
"Why do you guess evocation?"
"Am I wrong?"
"No," I admitted. Not only had I failed to read her expressions, but she seemed singularly capable of reading me. "But I still want to know why you guessed it."
"You strike me as the fire-and-lightning type."
Much as I despise being categorized, I held my tongue. One does not wish to seem defensive.
She continued leading the way to Ygresta's rooms. I continued to worry at the knot of her identity.
Realizing she was Toff Ornelos's grandniece narrowed the possibilities. When I had met them, the girls had ranged from ages six to fifteen. This woman was surely not Nicoletta, who married an ambassador to Sargava and likely resided there still. I did not think she was Letizia, whose constant yawning was her singular attribute. Of the others I remembered only names and relative ages. The youngest was Ambra, and her sisters were Filomena, whom Shelyn had blessed with exceptional beauty, and Illyria, whom the goddess had overlooked.
With that thought, I knew the answer.
By virtue of my half-elven longevity, I had seen generations of human children grow to adulthood. Lady Illyria was not the first ugly duckling to become a swan, but hers was the most pronounced transformation I had witnessed. The nose that seemed thin in childhood had grown regal, the fey cheekbones elegant. As a girl, she had barely spoken to me, yet I could now envision her watching the adults in silence while her sisters chattered among themselves.
Past the Hall of Whispers, we came to a row of faculty cottages. At the farthest, she climbed three steps up onto the landing and unlocked the door. Turning with a flourish, she offered me the key.
Also with a flourish, I held the door for her. "After you, Lady Illyria."
"Ah!" she said, still mimicking me. She straightened a pin holding her hair in a display of purple-frosted roses. "I knew my name would come to you eventually."
I recalled that Illyria's mother lived in Westcrown while her father—Fedele's sickly brother, nephew to Headmaster Toff Ornelos—kept a home in Korvosa. "How is your father's health?"
"I am making sure he eats properly before I sail to Riddleport next month."
"To Riddleport?" The city was more popular with pirates than with gentlewomen.
"Some friends are throwing an eclipse party beneath the Cyphergate."
I resisted the impulse to correct her use of the term. The phenomenon is more accurately an occultation of the sun, not an eclipse. Yet one does not wish to seem pedantic.
Inside, the cottage appeared largely undisturbed since Ygresta's death. Someone had stripped the sheets from the sagging mattress in the bedroom. We shooed flies from unwashed dishes in the kitchen but were relieved to discover the pantry had been cleared. A film of dust had accumulated on the furniture.
The sitting room featured a pair of overstuffed chairs beside the hearth. A deep depression in one seat indicated Ygresta's favorite. On the wall behind it hung a portrait of the man. His tall figure was much as I remembered, if withered. It had been decades since we last met, so I had never seen Ygresta's thinning gray hair, his round spectacles, or his sunken cheeks. Recognizing the portrait as the work of a painter who had died twenty years ago, I wondered how much more time had ravaged Ygresta before death. Considering he was the same age as I, and wholly human, he had enjoyed an exceptional life span.
"They say he slipped away in his sleep," Lady Illyria said. Sorrow tinged her voice.
"Then the Tender of Dreams kissed his face." I sketched the wings of Desna over my heart.
Illyria drew the spiral of Pharasma over hers. How strange, I thought, for a necromancer to invoke the Lady of Graves, whose priests abhor the undead. No stranger to the paradoxes of character, I found this anomaly deepened my curiosity about the woman.
After a moment, we broke our separate reveries.
"The library?" I asked.
"Between the dungeon and the torture chamber," she said, her voice sinister yet whimsical.
We descended a spiraling iron staircase. Magical flames sprang up in glass fixtures, casting our shadows behind the bars of the railings. Arnisant followed us down to the wooden floor and sniffed the corners of the room. Again he growled.
"Arnisant!" He came to heel.
Lady Illyria sniffed. "I can't blame him. This place is full of weird stinks."
That was so. The library smelled more like an alchemist's laboratory. Shelves lined the walls, except where they parted for a fireplace and two doors. One door stood open, revealing a cluttered storeroom. Judging from the odor, the closed door concealed a privy.
Librams, chapbooks, scrolls, folios, and loose manuscripts crammed the shelves. The collection was smaller than expected. At a glance, I estimated I could complete the inventory within a day. The sooner the cottage became available for another tenant, the better pleased the headmaster would be. Pleased enough to answer my inquiries, I hoped.
Knickknacks interrupted the ranks of books. Apart from a devil's skull and a brass candelabrum resembling a hand of glory, I spied few tokens of necromancy. Between the shelves stood a pair of tables. One lay empty, one stacked with crates overflowing with packing straw. A ledger, brush, and paste-pot lay beside a stack of blank labels, as the custodians had promised.
Ygresta's desk stood across from the tables, before the little fireplace. Beside it hung a birdcage, empty but for a dry water dish and a carpet of hardened fecal matter. At my approach, a brass lamp flared to life, spilling light on the desktop.
There in the center of the desk, upon a discolored paper blotter, rested a teak box beneath a calling card inscribed with my name.
Without disturbing the card, I scanned the box for magic. Detecting none, I scanned the room. The lamp above the desk and the lights on the stair radiated steady magic. On a few of the shelved books I discerned traces of metamorphosis spells. The latter were likely the residue of simple preservative spells, but their presence suggested more valuable tomes. Those I set aside for further study.
"The professor left his entire library to you?" said Illyria.
"His will names me his executor but indicates no beneficiaries, so in effect he did. After gathering the collection into lots, I will circulate an inventory to the Acadamae librarians and entertain their requests."
"You won't keep it for yourself? I thought you liked books."
"Perhaps one or two volumes." My library surely already contained any interesting volumes I might find here, but I did not say so. One does not wish to boast.
"In that case, may I be the first to lodge a request?"
"On behalf of the Hall of Whispers?"
"On behalf of myself."
So, I thought, Illyria was not merely smoothing over her uncle's sour greeting. She had her own agenda as well. "Name it."
She indicated a shelf of chapbooks. "Professor Ygresta's collection of the Pathfinder Chronicles."
My own collection was the most comprehensive I had ever seen. It included volumes dating from the very founding of the Pathfinder Society, with many annotated duplicates. In the unlikely event I should find one I lacked on Ygresta's meager shelf, I would claim it. But I saw no harm in giving Illyria the rest. "Is that all?"
She averted her eyes. "If you aren't taking them, perhaps also your letters?"
Her blush appeared genuine, but a sincere appearance is the goal of every ruse. "My letters to Professor Ygresta?"
"Exactly." She withdrew a pasteboard box from a shelf and lay it before me. I opened the drawer and saw it was full of letters, all addressed to Professor Benigno Ygresta in my handwriting.
Out of a sense of collegial obligation, I had always responded to his letters about current affairs at the Acadamae with some account of my latest excursion. The letters contained nothing not also reported to the Society. Naturally, I never mentioned military, political, or personal matters to someone beneath the aristocracy. I could not fathom what interest they might hold for Lady Illyria.
The foremost letter was my most recent message, a request for Ygresta to speak on my behalf to Headmaster Toff Ornelos, for whom I had so many questions about my admission and education at the Acadamae.
"I'm sorry." Lady Illyria winced. "I knew it was too much to ask."
For a moment I considered whether she was flirting with me. Long before I reached the age of maturity, my mother armored me against the attentions of women attracted more to my wealth than to myself. Yet Illyria did not strike me as the type. An Acadamae graduate would be far too intelligent to expect me to succumb to such manipulation.
Whatever her agenda, I could think of no harm that could come from giving her the letters. Moreover, a favor to her was a favor to the headmaster. I still required answers to my questions.
"You will understand that I must review the letters before deciding."
She brightened. "Naturally."
"Then let us revisit the matter after I have finished cataloging the library."
She rubbed her palms together. "In that case, let me help."
Before I could protest, she drew a wooden disk from her pouch. She wound a string around a slot in its circumference and flicked the disk away. As she uttered the spell, the whirling disk reached the end of the string and vanished. In its place, a whirlwind stirred the loose pages on the nearest shelves.
"Start in there." She directed her invisible servant toward the storeroom. "Dust every surface, but move nothing."
While I appreciated her careful instructions, I preferred to discharge my duty in solitude. "Lady Illyria, I assure you I require no assistance."
"You'll choke to death on these cobwebs before we can have you to dinner." She fanned away the cloud already emerging from the storeroom. "There must be a window in one of these rooms."
She cast a light on the palm of her hand and entered the storeroom.
With a resigned sigh, I sat before Ygresta's desk. The chair felt too large, but so did my coat. Radovan was not the only one who had lost weight during our journey. Arnisant sat at my foot, sniffing to confirm I had no food to share. I admonished him with a look, and he laid his head on his crossed paws, the guilty beggar. During the worst of our privations on our journey from the Worldwound, I had succumbed to pity and secretly fed the hound a portion of my ration. He learned to linger whenever I ate. Now I had to be strict with him lest he learn to beg whenever I sat before a table.
The box on Ygresta's desk appeared to be of recent construction, no more than a year or so old. The golden teak was of a type commonly imported to Varisia from eastern Garund, but in the carving I spied the iconography of ancient Thassilon.
I lifted the card bearing my name. Engraved on the box's lid was the sihedron, a star with each of its seven points notched like one of Radovan's throwing blades. I had seen the symbol etched on artifacts recovered from the demesnes of the long-lost runelords and their predecessor, the great King Xin, Emperor of Thassilon.
Illyria emerged from the storeroom with a bottle of wine. "Was 4690 a good year?" She presented the bottle like a sommelier.
The label had begun curling at the edges. The bottle was from one of my best vineyards, but an early frost had bruised the grapes that year. "That vintage has not aged as well as others."
"There's plenty more where that came from. What's a good year?"
"Is there any '84?"
"I see bottles dated back to the Age of Enthronement. You could open a shop with all of these."
Since I left Korvosa upon my graduation from the Acadamae, it had become my custom to send a gift of each year's wine to friends and associates in the city. Benigno received only one bottle annually, so I was surprised so much remained. "Did Ygresta stop drinking wine?"
"We didn't exactly run in the same social circles."
"No, of course not." Despite his academic accomplishments, modest though they were, Benigno Ygresta remained a vintner's son.
"What have you found there, a sihedron?" Illyria sat on the corner of the desk and peered at the box. "You see all sorts of adventurers with those lately."
She nodded. "Fortune-hunters have been dredging up Thassilonian artifacts all across Varisia. So many Pathfinders have been exploring the region that they opened a new lodge in Magnimar. Oh, but of course as a venture-captain you already knew that."
In fact, I did not know of a new lodge, but I had no desire to discuss my estrangement from the Society and its ten anonymous leaders whose motives I no longer trusted.
I opened the box. Inside I found a thick stack of unmarked parchment. The pages fit perfectly inside the box's velvet lining, suggesting the container had been made to size. I retrieved a magnifying glass and a pair of clean white gloves from the satchel. A cursory inspection offered no clue as to the parchment's age or origin. Even with the aid of my glass, I could not identify what animal's skin constituted the material. Removing the parchment, I felt its substantial weight. Its outermost pages, only slightly thicker than the rest, formed its only binding.
"It's a book," said Illyria. "A codex, to be precise."
The study of ancient manuscripts remained one of my abiding interests, so I appreciated her specificity. "You must have earned full marks in Paleography."
"One of my best subjects." She made no attempt to disguise her pride.
I flipped through the pages. The interior was as blank as the covers.
"A gift of stationery?" said Illyria. "The professor often said how much he enjoyed reading accounts of your travels. Maybe he intended you to use it as your next journal."
"Perhaps. But if it was a gift, why not send it to me?"
"Maybe he wanted to give it to you in person."
"Then why leave a calling card with my name upon it? Except for a recent message I sent him, we had not corresponded in several years. He never told me I was to execute his will. He left me no instructions."
She picked up the calling card I had set aside. "Perhaps he had just begun making arrangements."
That was as reasonable a suggestion as any, but it hardly satisfied the questions of the carved box and the blank pages. Setting aside the box, I began to lay down the codex but paused when I noticed the stains on the blotter. Among the usual ink spots and food stains lay a dark spatter surrounding a rectangular void.
"Let me tear that away for you." Lady Illyria reached for the blotter page.
"No, leave it." I laid the codex in the blank space within the spatter. Its corners fit one side of the blank. I opened the pages to lie flat, and it fit perfectly within the unblemished space.
"He must have spilled wine," said Lady Illyria. "Later he cleaned the pages with a spell."
That was possible, but I did not like the color. I rubbed a gloved finger across the stain. Faint granular residue remained on the white cloth. "Not wine. Blood."
I raised an eyebrow.
She wrinkled her nose. "I mean, how gruesome."
The stain was beyond interesting. Ygresta had left me far more than a codex of blank pages. He had left me that which I love best: a mystery.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.