Sorry this is late. Stuff not only happened, but kept on happening. The pictures I chose were: 1) Turambar's. The image supplied the charcter of Iddin-Lagumal. 2) Sparrow's (replacement). The image supplied the character of Aminta, the Crystal of Tears, and the imp (note the figure above her left shoulder. 3) Lord Yuan's. The image supplied the Gate of the Ages. The Gate of the Ages by Edwin C. Mason (Greybeard) When Iddin-Lagumal rode through the gatehouse he knew trouble awaited. They kept their eyes averted, every member of the castle staff looking elsewhere. Despite his many years of keeping an even temper, they still feared him, feared what he could do with arcane knowledge. He shrugged the thought away. He had never been an impulsive man, even before the three thousand years had mellowed him. "What's happened," he asked one of the stable boys. The boy merely ducked his head and led the horse away. Well, Iddin-Lagumal had his own news. Rather than raise his voice, he lowered it just so and whispered in a way that carried to every corner of the bailey. "The Virumen approach under arms. Alert the guard and notify Her Majesty." They turned and stared, eyes wide and feet shuffling. Even the soldiers looked afraid. That surprised him little; the Virumen's habit of cooking their prisoners alive often proved enough to unnerve the strongest. particularly distressing. He shifted to his normal voice and spoke to a passing maid. "Have I missed dinner?" "Yes, Lord," she said, and shuffled on, her eyes not lifting from the dirt of the courtyard. "Well, send someone to get me something to eat, and then find someone who will tell me what's happened." She jumped, turned around with her eyes wide. Tears cut furrows through the dust on her cheeks. "Yes, Lord," she said, then turned and ran. She needn't have bothered. Sture trotted toward him from the steps of the keep. His rich robes dragged in the dirt, and for once he didn't seem to care. "Come, quickly, Iddin, you're our only hope now." "Never mind that. Make sure the needed men get to the wall and have the queen fetch the Crystal of Tears." He started toward the Counsellor's Tower, his home for more than two centuries. "That's the problem. She can't fetch the stone, and we can't get to her to help." That made little sense. Her Talent was in its infancy, but she had power enough to coax the crystal free. "What are you saying?" "Come see." Iddin-Lagumal shook his head. This wasn't the reception he'd anticipated. "Why can't Her Majesty access the stone?" "Come see." He'd known the man for long enough to know that he'd never get a fuller answer from him, at least not without resorting to cajoling and threats, and that would take much longer than simply going to find out. He shrugged and started toward the keep instead. Inside, the men bustled and scurried, arming for the battle that would surely come. They wrapped themselves in armour and belted on swords and hammers. More hurried past with crossbows. They looked frightened, and they shouldn't. They knew the powers of the Crystal of Tears well enough to understand the futility of attacking the royal residence. That meant they knew the trouble more than he did. The thought send a chill through him. "Is Her Majesty ill?" "Ill? No, no, not that. Would that she were. Well, perhaps she is, we can't ..." "What is the heart of the problem? Why can't you tell?" If nothing else, the man should be able to tell him the most obvious parts of the problem. "Well?" "The gate, Iddin. It's the gate." Sure enough, Sture led him up to the throne room entrance, and the Gate of the Ages rested on the floor. It blocked the passage completely, from the ceiling twenty feet above to the floor beneath, and spanned the twelve-foot expanse of the main doors. From experience, Iddin-Lagumal knew it also blocked the other entrances to the room. That was not a problem in the least, or should not be. The gate existed to protect whoever sat the throne whenever the Mage-Counsellor was absent. Queen Aminta should have been safe within, sitting her throne, and eating foods passed through the bars that neutralized poison among their many other functions. The Gate of the Ages could be removed only from within, an easy matter for the occupant of the throne room. This time, though, Aminta sat oblivious to all. "When did this happen?" "Three days ago. All was fine until then." "Has she moved at all?" Sture sighed and shook his head. "She seems to sleep. From time to time her body stirs, but she doesn't wake." Iddin-Lagumal stroked his white beard. The queen sat the throne, her chin resting on one shoulder, and breathed calmly and deeply. All seemed normal. The Crystal of Tears glowed on the raised back of the throne, ready to defend castle and lands when called on, but he could not access it unless he could wake Aminta to raise the gates. Surely they had tried already, but since dragging more detail out of Sture would take more time than trying again, Iddin-Lagumal projected his voice near to the queen's ear. "Wake up, Your Majesty. The land is imperilled." She stirred, then muttered in her sleep and snored. He watched her for a moment. Small and pretty, she seemed too young to hold such an office, but the crystal had spoken her name and hers alone, and that made Aminta queen. Her flowing hair, more silver than blonde, hung down nearly to the floor and her gown had become disarrayed over the time she'd slept, showing her stockinged legs. He saw no clue to the problem, at least not from this distance. Instead of searching futilely for a reason, he clapped the butt of his staff on the floor and called "Wake!" into her ear. This time she didn't even stir. He sighed. Rather than speak again, Iddin-Lagumal became silent and quested with his ears alone. Something sounded in the throne room, something that should not be there at all. He heard a thin strain of music, the weak strumming of a harp perhaps. Not an unpleasant sound, but unexpected. He stifled a yawn. He gazed here and there, searching for the source of the music, then didn't react when a figure climbed onto the throne beside Aminta. On its feet and fully upright it might have stood close to a foot tall, but it did neither. Rather, it crawled up onto Aminta's shoulder and crouched there, whistling almost imperceptibly It pulled a tiny harp onto its knee and strummed. Queen Aminta snored loudly. The imp laughed, showing sharp teeth in an odd, circular mouth. Sture gasped and lurched backwards. Well, now Iddin-Lagumal knew the threat. The imp kept her sleeping while the army approached. As long as she slept, he could not use the Crystal of Tears, and as long as the crystal remained inaccessible, the kingdom's life hung in the balance. "I will fetch the Arch-Priest." Iddin-Lagumal didn't react, and then the sound of Sture's footsteps scraped down the corridor. He would have done no good at all, and the priest might not be much more use. Iddin-Lagumal decided to try the simplest approach first. He gazed up at a window above the throne and called. The sky darkened there for a moment, only a little patch clouding over. Lightning flashed experimentally, once, twice, then granted him a tiny, controlled bolt that slid through the window, flashed around the gate, touched his staff and shot toward the imp. It ducked, but only after the bolt had struck a hand span above its head. Iddin-Lagumal directed the next bolt closer and the next closer still. When one finally came close enough to have sparked some damage in the dangerous little creature, it ducked behind the queen's shoulder. Iddin-Lagumal shook his head. That would never work. No matter how urgent the situation, he couldn't fire close enough to endanger Aminta, and he had to work the lightning closer to preserve the queen. Whenever he did that, the imp had sufficient warning to preserve it's unnatural life. Iddin-Lagumal sighed. There had to be other options, but he couldn't think of one now. Instead, he retreated into the corridor and out of the imp's sight. Options. A serving woman carried a brightly-polished silver pitcher on a pewter tray past him. "Wait," he said. "Let me have a drink." Her eyes opened wide, then she glanced into the throne room and gasped. She held the tray out, and when Iddin-Lagumal took the pitcher, she dropped it and bolted, looking back into the throne room. He turned back and glanced inside. The imp had resumed his seat on the queen's shoulder, but didn't seem to be doing anything more disturbing than playing music. Well, magic of any sort could be frightening to the uninitiated. Iddin-Lagumal drank deeply, not noticing what the pitcher held until the flavour of the fruit punch threatened to overwhelm his senses. He took another gulp, then set it on a table. Still no thought of how to proceed had come to him, so he bent over and retrieved the tray. When he straightened, he caught sight of his distorted image in the pitcher and smiled. There at least was something he could do. Whether it would work or not, he hadn't a clue. He had to try, though, or surrender the kingdom, freedom, growing things, and all else that he had ever cherished in this world. He gripped his staff in both hands. Setting his mind in the way it should be, he reached out to the staff, let his mind enfold it, discovered what it was in itself, what it could be, what it thought of itself. So many times he had done this over the centuries, yet it had never unfolded the same truths to him twice. In his mind it reshaped into the form of a venomous serpent, slithered out of his hands and squirmed over to the base of the gate. Iddin-Lagumal wondered if this was the way the imp had entered, just slipped beneath of through the bars because it was so small. Perhaps he had erred when creating the Gate of the Ages. Not that its creation was wrong - it had saved one monarch or another too many times for him to seriously consider that possibility - but it may have been flawed. He shrugged. It hardly mattered now. Anything he could create someone would find a way around. Now that this one had been breached, he would have to create a newer and more complete version. Leaning on that part of his staff that was still wood and solid and served no purpose other than to support his aged weight, he watched that part of the staff that lived and breathed and thought, and had now formed an illusory cobra that slithered across the throne room floor. The imp saw it early, jumped up on Aminta's shoulder. One leap took it high enough that he might have taken a shot with a lighting bolt. He couldn't, unfortunately. With one part of the staff away and serving another purpose, he couldn't use what was left to call and direct lightning. Pity. Somehow, for all its terrified antics, the imp didn't for a moment stop playing and whistling. Not that he expected it, the tune no longer made Iddin-Lagumal weary, but it still nagged at the back of his mind. He knew the tune, had known it for centuries. As a youth he'd found it on the walls of a tomb where one of the Ancients had been buried, written in the archaic method of musical notation, using numbers around a letter, rather than any of the more modern forms. He'd thought then that he was the only person alive capable of reading it. Certainly Owol-ipturim who found the tomb with him had shown no talent in that direction. Besides, he was dead these twenty-three centuries. Who had taught the imp that spell he couldn't know, and the imp certainly wouldn't tell. Such creatures paid a great price for failure, and that paled beside the price paid for betrayal. Iddin-Lagumal would only discover the truth by making the imp's present more hideous that the threatened future, and he was hardly up to torturing the thing. The thought roiled his stomach. The snake crept nearer, while the imp's contortions became more and more extreme. Soon it would panic, loose enough concentration that he would sour the song, allowing Aminta to wake. It must, or all he knew would die. He gulped at the punch again, and tried not to notice when he placed the jug back down and it rattled. From outside, the first noise of conflict came. Servants ran through the hall, some whimpering, others swearing. None of it mattered as much as the interaction between a vile little imp from the depths of the Hells and a simple illusory snake. Finally the imp stumbled off the throne into the path of the snake and looked goggle-eyed at it. Still it played, while Iddin-Lagumal set himself to shout as loudly as he could to wake the tender woman on the throne. The imp stopped in front of the serpent, only its hands still moving on the harp, maintaining the tune that cast the spell. As the serpent neared, it reared and spread its hood. That threat display frightened the bravest man, and more than just mortals. Then the imp, still playing, leapt high, came down facing away from the illusory cobra, bent over and wiggled its buttocks in contempt. Then it laughed, tucked the harp under one arm and continued strumming with the same hand. It pointed through the bars of the gate and laughed more loudly still. Iddin-Lagumal drew the spirit of the staff back in an instant, called the lightning and redirected it. This time the imp squealed and scampered for the only safety it could find, the queen's body, the only thing in the throne room Iddin-Lagumal couldn't destroy. Snarling, Iddin-Lagumal turned back. Sture approached with the arch-priest. "What has happened?" He answered the priest. "Little that is useful, I fear. I have discovered that it is more intelligent and perceptive than I had hoped." Rather than continue the unnecessary conversation, he turned back to the throne room and listened to the song. The lilting tune carried too well. Snoring came from behind him, now. A glance showed that Sture slept slept on the floor. That meant that the imp was finally scared; it must have increased the potency of the music to affect someone so suddenly. Iddin-Lagumal didn't care. His task remained, and his options remained few. He had to slip something through bars of the gate, something that could disrupt the spell, even if it couldn't damage the imp itself. What could pass, though. No weapon could, so a crossbow bolt wouldn't work even if he dared place it an inch from Aminta's shoulder. Illusion had failed, and Iddin-Lagumal wouldn't waste time with another attempt. Could a real animal be trusted with the task? No dog would pass; the bars stood too close together for that, and he doubted the ability of a cat to do the task in useful time. No, a cat might be just the thing, if one could be caught in time. The castle swarmed with semi-feral cats that lived on the mice they caught. "Holy One, find me a cat. Preferably more than one, but get the first one as soon as possible." No answer came. At his feet, the arch-priest lay, face down with his eyes closed, breathing slowly. Iddin-Lagumal kicked him in the ribs, hard enough to wake any man. He barely stirred. Even a harder kick produced no useful response. If he were a different man, Iddin-Lagumal would have sworn. No one else could be trusted to approach now, so he had no help. Likely any cat that came would instantly curl up in sleep and dream of starlings rather than try to catch the imp. Iddin-Lagumal ignored the mounting annoyances and concentrated on the original problem. Somewhere in in the spell itself lay the solution. If not ... well he didn't dare consider that possibility. The spell was a tune, a series of musical notes played in a particular rhythm. He knew the tune, and some similar. Music wasn't an easy sort of magic to master as it affected the emotions of the player and that came at a grave cost in vital concentration. The imp seemed immune to his own emotions, unfortunately. Iddin-Lagumal cocked his head. He did not smile, but he had an inkling. Once more, he looked to his staff and delved its being to discover what possibilities it offered this time. It grew finger holes and a mouthpiece, and Iddin-Lagumal fingered one and blew into the other. Listening closely, he matched the solemn melody, with his piping, matched the tone and beat perfectly, letting the music flow over him. He retained only enough of himself to stay awake and keep control of his mind. The imp appeared again in the room, glaring for a moment at him, then settled on the arm of the throne. They played together for a while while the thunderous racket came from outside, where people now fought and died. No matter how desperate the situation, Iddin-Lagumal didn't dare to rush his challenge. Error now would be more than deadly. Instead, he joined in on the spell and felt Aminta fall into an even deeper sleep. What the imp made of that, he couldn't say, but it didn't matter in the least. For the moment, anyway, the imp joined in with enthusiasm. They played together for as long as Iddin-Lagumal dared. Then, without warning, he changed the key. For a few seconds he imp appeared confused; he touched a wrong note or two before catching the change and following. Aminta didn't stir. Now Iddin-Lagumal's play was enough to keep her asleep. He had his first triumph, though. For the first time, he'd affected the imp's behaviour in a way he'd wanted to. They kept playing. Twice more, Iddin-Lagumal changed keys. Each time, the imp followed the change. Each time it took effort and caused a moment's confusion. Then Iddin-Lagumal varied the beat, adding syncopation to the carefully measured rhythm. This time the imp didn't follow. Instead it snarled at him and fought against the syncopation, keeping strictly to the necessary rhythm. Next, Iddin-Lagumal added more beats, and varied the melody slightly, then more. Too well trained, the imp kept to the tune he was playing, as a choir must with a soloist performing a descant. Perhaps that had been a little too obvious. Instead of keeping on with that, Iddin-Lagumal changed to a minor key, hoping that the change would be enough to negate the spell. The imp followed, effortlessly, this time. Paying strict attention, Iddin-Lagumal noticed when Aminta's sleep became shallower; he made several rapid key changes to force the imps concentration away from her. It seemed to work. Behind him, the arch-priest stirred. Iddin-Lagumal took his lips from the mouthpiece just long enough to bark, "Stay down." Too late. The imp spun to look at Aminta and saw her stirring, watched while her eyes opened. It looked past the gate and snarled, then leapt at the young queen. Iddin-Lagumal gathered the breath deep within him and laid his lips against the mouthpiece again. He blew forcefully, fingered an alarm melody and watched Aminta's eyes pop open. She jerked in time to catch the imp's first attack on her arm. Blood spurted. She screamed. "Raise the gate!" Iddin-Lagumal shouted. From behind him, the arch-priest's prayers formed an undertone. Setting his hands to the gate, Iddin-Lagumal rattled it and shouted over and over again. Aminta jerked this way and that, trying to shake the imp from her arm. Finally, her eyes locked on the men gathered at her doorway, and opened wide to stare. Turning to the throne, she slapped the Crystal of Tears with an awkward, upward motion. The crystal glowed, flashed, then pulsed slowly. The gate rumbled deep within the walls, Iddin-Lagumal's preset spells working swiftly to raise the gate. Iddin-Lagumal dropped to his chest beside the priest and scurried under the first moment the gate allowed. He started his millennia-old body running across the floor toward the throne. Halfway there, he heard a scream from behind. The swiftest glance showed leather-clad soldiers bludgeoning the priest down, and falling on him with claws and teeth while more scrambled under the lifting gate. He had little time. Save the queen or save the kingdom? If he'd had another minute, he would have charged to the queen's aid and perhaps lost all. Here, though, with young and fit killers on his tail, he had no choice. He knelt on the seat of the Crystal Throne and reached out to the Crystal of Tears, touched it and coaxed it gently from its setting. The world crashed into his shoulder, driving him forward and frightening the crystal back into its place. The iron head of a crossbow bolt jutted from his shoulder. His death wouldn't bother him in the slightest. Some would argue that it was past time, but he could not fail in this. Reaching again, he teased the crystal from it's place while two more bolts thudded into the back of the throne, inches from his hand. A bellowed war cry sounded behind him, far too close. Iddin-Lagumal turned, slipped off the throne, gasped when the bolt in his shoulder knocked against the seat. He directed the energy of the Crystal of Tears at the man swinging a sword above him. A glittering bolt of deep red flashed, took the man in the middle and cut him in half. Iddin-Lagumal collapsed to the floor, all his gaze, all his concentration locked onto the crystal in his hands. His mind dived deep into it. For this, he needed a greater delicacy, greater focus. Rather than let the agony in his shoulder distract him, he used it as a point to concentrate on, dug his mind into the crystal and launched the power within it. This time the energy coming from it was directed by love and hope, not by the brutal fear and anger of the earlier crimson burst. This time it flashed purest white, rising to the top of the throne room first, and then running throughout the keep, throughout the castle and surrounding grounds, felling the enemy he'd battled through the long years. Turning to his charge, Iddin-Lagumal crawled to her side, heedless of the pain in his shoulder spiking down his arm. He wrapped his fingers around her lacerated and bleeding arm, directed the power of the crystal to heal it. In turn, she took the Crystal of Tears from his blood-slick fingers and directed the power in return. Aminta's abilities weren't a thousandth of his, but her years with magic weren't a thousandth of his either. He gasped and sobbed as the white energy of the crystal wrapped around the bolt head and fletching and snapped the shaft within him. It took all his willpower to keep from screaming as she yanked the ends from his body. Soon the energy flowed through his shoulder and he slipped into unconsciousness. # Iddin-Lagumal woke in his own bed surrounded by his books and maps and notes on a thousand subjects. Aminta smiled down at him. "How long?" "Three days. I didn't dare use the gate again, not knowing if you would be able to rescue me in your condition." He laughed. "Tell me what happened." "I don't know. One day I sat on the throne and became tired. My head drooped and the next thing I knew you were shouting and that little thing jumped on me and bit. You tell me what happened." Iddin-Lagumal hesitated. Aminta looked at him with mock seriousness and said, "Your queen commands it." He didn't see any great sense in holding any of it back. "The imps are creatures created from purest evil, specifically, from the souls of evil wizards. Let that be a lesson to you; you have the power within to understand, to rise high in wisdom and righteousness. At the same time, you have it within you to become that evil little thing. I may have known him in life. Come to think of it, I might have killed him. I've slain.... I did know him. That's how he learned of the spell. I knew the song-spell he used because I found it in a tomb, but I had a friend with me at the time. He, too, must have learned the song then. Oh, how the darkness can take the best of us!" Yes, the darkness could take the best. That red bolt he'd coaxed from the Crystal of Tears wasn't like him. Never before had he struck a mortal in anger rather than indignation, in fear rather than concern. If that became common in his life, he might end up the next imp playing forbidden music before the Crystal Throne. He closed his eyes at the thought, and prayed that it would never come to that. The End Copyright 2013 Edwin C. Mason. All rights reserved.