Conspiracy of the Dead

Chapter 1  A Warning From Beyond

    Prince Alorn woke early and lay still in the silence of the dawn. Something had woken his mind and urged his body to rouse itself. He glanced at the still sleeping form of his wife Annalor. Her expression was calm and her sleep untroubled. It seemed unlikely that she had interrupted his slumbers.
    He recalled how restless she had been when Morgg's summons had disturbed her with cold dreams, a chilling prelude to the dangers and privations of the search for the beam of hate. But now she slept soundly, her midnight red hair spread on a pillow of the same sunshine blue as her skin.
    Careful to avoid waking her, Alorn slipped from their bed, crossed the chamber and, pulling aside a sky-red arras, passed through the doorway into a smaller room. He approached a cradle and looked down at the closed eyes of his son Merianon. The child's half smile brought an answering joy to Alorn and he stood gazing at the pale blue countenance, the short straight red hair and the delicate features which so inextricably mingled the appearances of his mother and father.
    Alorn watched the sleeping child for a while but it was clear that there was nothing amiss. Perhaps after all there was no significance to his early waking and the vague feeling of unease which assailed him. He stepped quietly to the door which led to the balcony and went out into the cool morning air. To the east the pale pink sky heralded the rising of Talas, Lavandrel's fierce blue luminary. Below him spread the courtyards and halls, the walls and battlements of the castle of his father, King Gault of Born. Five other towers rose to the same height as the one in which he and Annalor had their private apartments and which was known as the Heir Apparent's Tower. The others also had names - the Record Tower, the Armourer's Tower, the Guard Tower, the Quartermaster's Tower and the Royal Tower in which King Gault and Queen Nerin had their own chambers. Each of these six towers occupied one of the angles of the hexagonal curtain wall of the bailey. From the central mass of the sprawling keep loomed a seventh pile, taller by far than the others. There lived the great bats of Born, creatures trained to carry the monarch or his emissaries wherever he commanded.
    Beyond the jagged battlements huddled the slumbering city of Onuma. Here and there thin tendrils of smoke curled into the air, showing that some at least of the citizens were out of bed. He suspected they must  be smiths or bakers since it was now the season of Pollination and the day was likely to be too mild for fires to be needed for warmth. Already a distant haze was collecting over the Hills of Garfand to the east.
    A slight noise caused him to turn just as Annalor followed him on to the balcony. They kissed good morning.
    "Couldn't you sleep? "
    "I slept well but woke early."
    "Is there anything wrong? "
    "No I don't think so, in fact I'm sure there isn't. Perhaps I need some exercise. Shall we ride on the moors this afternoon?''
    The day passed pleasantly, like so many days since their return from the world of Ua. It had been a good time, made joyous by the birth of their son and their delight in his development. Nevertheless, Alorn could not quite dismiss the uneasiness with which he had begun the day and when night came he was still troubled.
    "Maybe you are bored," Annalor teased him, but there was a hint of worry in her tone. "You are tired of peace and tranquillity and yearn for more adventure!"
    Alorn did not rise to her laughing accusation. Instead he answered seriously.
    "I am content with our life. Perhaps it is a premonition that it cannot last that has disturbed me.''
    "Nothing lasts for ever," answered his wife. "We should enjoy each day as it comes for no one can foretell tomorrow, not even Merian."
    As she uttered the name of the sage, Alorn looked up sharply.
    "That is the cause," he told her. "It has come back to me; a dream I had last night. I must have forgotten it on waking and remembered only the distress it caused me. Merian is dying. I am sure of it. He wants to see me before he does."
    "Are you certain? Perhaps it was just a fancy."
    "No! You and I can tell when dreams are true and this most definitely was. I saw your uncle lying in his bed in his cottage on the slopes of the Hills of the Wind. He looked much older than when last I saw him. His beard was almost black with age; his eyes were closed but he was not asleep; he was calling to me across the ocean. I must go to see him."
    Annalor did not try to dissuade her husband. She knew the power that such dreams exerted.
    "You should go," she agreed. "Tomorrow we shall see your father and arrange for a ship to take us across the Ocean of Storms."
    "Us? You would come too? What about Merianon?"
    "We can take him with us. He is no longer a tiny baby. I am sure it will be safe."
    So it was settled between them, but that night Annalor dreamed almost as soon as she slept and in her dream her father Machanat spoke to her.
    "Time is short," he warned. "Poor Merian's strength is ebbing. He will hold on until Alorn comes but it taxes him. Urge Alorn to come swiftly."
    Annalor woke from her dream and rousing her husband, related her vision to him.
    "A sea voyage will be too slow," he decided. "I shall take Deth, my father's bat. I can reach the Great Continent in a matter of days." He regarded her with sadness. "I must go alone; it would be folly to risk our son on such a venture and it would not be fair for both of us to leave him."
    Annalor nodded.
    "You are right. I shall miss you and I am sorry that Merian will not see again the child we named for him. But you must lose no time. I will pack a satchel for you while you tell the King of your change of plan."
    When Alorn returned all was ready.
    "Take this for Merian," suggested Annalor. "It is the portrait of Merianon I painted." She rolled up the canvas and slipped it into a bag.
    Parting was painful and so they made it as brief as possible. Alorn hugged his son and embraced his wife and hurried across the courtyard towards the bat tower. His parents met him at the door.
    "Take care," urged Gault. "Twice before you have departed our house in this fashion and both departures were the prelude to dangerous events."
    "Yes, do be careful," echoed his mother. "And don't worry about Annalor and the child; we shall take good care of them."
    "Tell Merian we shall remember him always."
    "Is it really certain that he will die?" asked Nerin.
    "You know well, mother, that both Annalor and I are doomed to dream truth. We have received the same message. What could be more certain?"
    The queen sighed.
    "I do not doubt it. It is just that when we last saw him he seemed so - so permanent, unchanging."
    "I know. Almost I believed him immortal."
    Alorn clasped his father's hand and kissed his mother before entering the musty tower. He climbed the rope ladder up through the gloom to the beams of ocken near the open top. Through the opening he glimpsed stars glowing redly in the night sky. He pursed his lips and blew air through them, moving his tongue in a fashion taught to him long ago. He heard nothing, but a dark shape trembled. Now he caught a whisper, a faint trilling as ultra-sound waves were trapped by the crystal in his ear and re-emitted as fluting notes. He moved carefully along the beam until he came to the source of the sound. A short ladder hung from the ocken and he clambered down until he could grip the harness on the huge body of the giant bat.
    Quickly he secured himself and once more signalled to the animal. The bat dropped instantly from the beam, spread its leathery wings, and beat them against the still air inside the tower. Now they rose towards the unroofed top of the building and with a rush, sailed out into the cool night air. Alorn sat up as high as the harness would allow. He peered down and thought he glimpsed the figures of his parents, pale in the grey light of the moon Umandrel. They waved and he was sure. Then the bat was carrying him rapidly away from the castle.
    Annalor stood looking up at the heavens; saw her husband, a diminutive figure astride the great animal, dark against the moon-lit sky. A coldness seized her heart and she had a premonition of danger, one which she knew she could not ignore. Yet it was not an over-whelming feeling and she clung to that omen of hope. He would meet with great peril, she did not doubt, but she believed fervently that he would prevail in adversity.
    High in the air Alorn glanced down at the sleeping city of Onuma. Here and there blue lantern light outlined a window but for the most part the houses were dark. Above him the stars burned with an intense red light. The constellations of the bow and the butterfly spread themselves across the vault, while towards the horizon those of the wheel and the ship were partially obscured by narrow bars of dark cloud, almost black against the deep crimson of the night sky. Beneath him he felt the powerful movements of Deth as the great bat beat its leathery wings against the chill atmosphere of night.
    Deth climbed steeply to clear Onuma Crag and maintained his altitude as he flew steadily across the hinterland of the Garfand Hills. The vales between the summits were steeped in impenetrable darkness but the bat smelt the water as they crossed the River Garf where it tumbled south towards the Ang. Alorn crouched lower against the warm fur, remembering other flights. Twice before he had set off in just this way across the Ocean of Storms and on both occasions it had been many seasons before he had returned. He hoped that his present misgivings would come to naught. Perhaps Machanat and Merian had mistaken the gravity of the elder brother's condition, although that seemed unlikely.
    Presently Alorn fell asleep while his mount flew on over the land of Born, crossing the shore between the slumbering port of Dinnal and Logair's Tower.
    Below winked the blue lamp of Lingelt Light on the Goory Rocks and then the last of the land was left behind and Deth was heading out across the heaving swell of the coastal seas, where breakers rolled grey-capped in the beams of Umandrel, with deep red troughs reflecting the warmer light of the lesser moon Hirandrel. On and on through the watches of the night Deth flew.
    Prince Alorn was woken by nervous pipings from the crystal in his ear. He saw that dawn was approaching and the great bat abhorred the light. But there was no resting place, no concealment from the sun. Alorn looked round and in all directions saw only the heaving ocean. He made comforting whistling noises to reassure the creature, and then took a slice of bread from his knapsack and ate it slowly. Deth could go for long periods without food and in any case it would take no longer than a few days to cross the seas, so swiftly did the animal fly. He watched as the blue orb of Talas edged its way over the eastern horizon, its disc surrounded by a green halo, lurid against the pink sky of morning. He knew that it would get very hot as the sun climbed towards the zenith and this would not suit the bat.
    By mid morning, however, clouds were gathering, deep brown banks rolling out of the west. As they spread across the sky it grew gloomy and cool until by midday it was quite dark and cold. Rain fell suddenly and Alorn huddled against the warm body of his mount. The bat did not mind the wet and was happier in the gloom. So the day passed in discomfort for Alorn and the night brought no relief. Sheets of lightning rent the sky, precipitating sudden squalls of icy rain. Sharp cracks and slow rolls of thunder shattered the silence of the night. When the feeble light of another dawn seeped into the sky the downpour abruptly ceased. Gradually the clouds were shredded by the power of the newly risen Talas and it grew warm. Alorn's clothes steamed dry.
    Late in the afternoon he spied a purple smudge on the eastern horizon and knew that they were nearing the Great Continent, but dusk was gathering before they flew across the line of surf glinting in the setting sun. The sands looked black below them and the wooded slopes beyond were deep in shadow. Alorn had absolute confidence in the bat's navigational sense, knowing that if anything the creature oriented more surely at night than during daylight. Deth flew a little way inland until they reached a tract of open woodland and there he swooped down and caught hold of an upper bough of an ocken tree. The great body swung vertically and the man clung tightly, then as soon as they were still he slipped out of the harness and scrambled up into the tree.
    Deth immediately took to the air again as Alorn had known he would. The bat would need food more even than sleep and there should be fruit in plenty in this grove. Alorn himself found a comfortable niche in the tree, secured himself with the rope he kept about his waist, and slept.
    The next day the great bat slept while Alorn roamed through the wood, feeding himself on fruit and completing the drying of his clothes by a blazing fire of aldaran. When night came they set off eastward once more, Alorn straining his eyes for landmarks and whistling occasional directions to his mount. By morning the Hills of the Wind were in sight. The man signalled to the bat to come down in a copse which straggled up the rocky lower slopes of the hills. Here, he knew, they must separate. He could not guide the bat through the dark to the cottage. Indeed he was not entirely sure himself whether it was to the north or south of their present position.
    He whistled instructions to Deth, telling him to return to Onuma and then set off out of the wood and up the incline that would lead him eventually to the ridge which ran north to south along the eastern boundary of the Red Grass Plain. It was hard going as the ground was strewn with boulders tumbled from the heights above him and where patches of bluish earth had collected, bramble and thorn had rooted, their prickles fierce enough to deflect him from his preferred path. Mist swathed the summits but as Talas rose higher, so the white vapour boiled away and he was disconcerted to find it had concealed from him a rocky scarp. He stared at it in surprise, unable to recall ever having seen such cliffs before. They stretched away both north and south.
    The prospect of climbing the precipitous acclivity was daunting yet he was anxious to reach the ridge as he hoped from there to be able to see far enough to fix his position. Now, however, he doubted whether he would he able to do so. Since he had no recollection of ever seeing this feature of the hills before, it was unlikely that he was as close to Merian's cottage as he had imagined.
    On consideration he was inclined to think that he was too far north, since he was more familiar with the uplands to the south of the sage's home. He would be able to get a better idea, perhaps, at midday when the sun would be at its highest point. Meanwhile he judged it best to work southwards and, realising that it would be easier to walk across the scarlet sward of the plain, he scrambled back down to lower ground, but striking diagonally southward so as to avoid ending up in the wood.
    He reached the flat and continued until he was well away from the foothills and the debris at their margin before he turned due south and strode briskly along beneath the steadily growing heat of the midmorning sun. He was delighted by the flowers which peeped through the tufts of grass, the tiny red rememberme, the tall blue sunblooms bending in the breeze, the yellow elgbane and pink eartsfoot. His spirit lifted as he saw clouds of bright sulphurs flying down from the hillsides to sip nectar from the meadow blue. He watched a flock of tiny fieldfinders, snapping up the buzzers and droners. His pace slowed as it grew ever hotter and he was glad to come to a clear stream meandering across the plain from the foot of the hills. He drank deeply and splashed his face. As he rose from the crystal water he caught sight of a herd of centaurs emerging from a nearby grove. He hailed them and one of their number trotted across to him, tossing its red mane and eyeing him with circumspection.
    "Greetings," called the man. "I am Prince Alorn, friend of Kapallitas.''
    The creature smiled suddenly.
    "Then you are also a friend of mine. I am Endalas. Can I be of service to you?"
    "I am looking for Merian's cottage but I have missed my way."
    "You are too far north. You must journey southward for some four days." He saw the consternation on Alorn's face. "Are you on an urgent errand?"
    "Merian is dying," answered Alorn simply. "I must see him before it is too late."
    "I run more swiftly than you. I will take you some of the way."
    Alorn knew the centaurs to be a proud race, resentful of any attempt to treat them as beasts of burden. Willingness to carry someone as might a horse was a sign of true friendship and he was grateful.
    "I accept your offer."
    Soon they were galloping across the grasslands, a warm breeze tugging at the centaur's mane and Alorn's cloak. Another member of the herd accompanied them and the two centaurs took turns carrying the man to conserve their strength and maintain a good pace. It was exhilarating pounding across the plain, the wind bending the grass into scudding waves beneath the hot sun. He could see a great way and, when the coastal strip narrowed, he could even glimpse distant surf glinting in the sunshine. He suddenly realised that he was enjoying himself despite his melancholy errand and he felt a twinge of guilt. Yet he new that to be irrational. Death was no more a tragedy than any other parting. Merian would be gone from the physical world, would no longer dwell in his cottage in the hills. But he would have moved on to the worlds beyond, whither Alorn himself must one day follow him thus to meet again. There were far worse things in life than its end.
    They came to a wide but shallow stream and the centaurs galloped through it sending up a splattering of clear water.
    "Begen Beck," called Endalas over his shoulder.
    Towards dusk they splashed across another river, the Fledd, and soon after that halted for the night. Before they slept Endalas told Alorn of events which had occurred since last the Prince had been among the centaurs and Alorn was pleased to hear that Kapallitas too now had a son.
    They were up before dawn, pressing on in the antelucan darkness.
    By late afternoon Alorn began to recognise the countryside and before much longer they crossed the Delen Burn and reached the rough road which led up to Battle Pass. The centaurs turned their heads from what was, for them, an ill-omened way, for it was in the pass that so many of their kind had been massacred by the men of the Vale of Tamon when tragic misunderstanding had precipitated war between the two species. Out of respect for their feelings, Alorn too averted his gaze, but once they were past the track he turned his attention again to the hills. As always an armada of small brown clouds drifted slowly along the summits and he could see dark specks wheeling above the heights of Delen Law and Solen Law. From the way they flew he recognised skydots and skikes and the larger black shapes of carrion croaks, alert as ever for the scent of death.
    Abruptly the centaurs slowed and stopped. Endalas pointed up the hillside.
    "You can see the cottage now. We can take you no further for those rock strewn slopes are treacherous enough for us even unburdened."
    "You have done more than I could have expected and I thank you. Grant me one further boon and convey my greetings to Kapallitas when next you meet him. Tell him too that Merian is close to death. Kapallitas also was his friend and will want to know."
    "We shall do as you ask. Farewell."
    For a while Alorn watched as the two centaurs galloped away northward, then he turned towards the hills. Keeping the track which led to Battle Pass on his left and at the limit of his vision, he began to pick his way upward. Now that he was on the steep slope rising towards Holme Crag, he could no longer see the cottage. It was warm work toiling beneath the hot sun. An unnatural stillness seemed to have fallen across the hillside. He heard the menacing call of carrion croaks as though reminding him of the reason for his errand. There was an occasional flash of red and blue as a multipede fled his approaching footfall. The flowers of the plain had given way to flatweed and rambleblue and the grass was a darker red with here and there patches of bare blue soil. Skikesbill and starshine did little to relieve the monotony and he looked in vain for the splayfooted hoppers that normally frequented the uplands. Here and there were groups of stunted werran trees. He missed the bright butterflies of the plain although once he saw a yellow emperor.
    He came to a fast flowing stream and followed it a little way until he was certain it was the Solen Water which he knew passed the cottage. Then he struck off in a more southerly direction but still climbing.  He found the Hills of the Wind as confusing as always. Merian knew every stone of them but to Alorn they seemed never the same as when last seen. Suddenly he saw the cot he sought a little below and south of his position. He scrambled down towards it, abruptly realising that he had begun to grow alarmed at the prospect of missing it altogether in the gathering dusk. A shaft of blue light sprang from a window and his heart lifted. In no time he was pushing open the gate set in the thick hedge, and walking up the brick path. Before he reached it, the door of the cottage swung open and Machanat stood in the blue lit opening.
    "I'm glad you're here at last," he greeted. "Come in."
    Alorn followed him into the living room and warmed to the sight of the log fire.
    "How is he?" he asked without preamble.
    "He is waiting only to talk to you," was the answer. "Then he will go."
    Alorn studied Machanat's serene countenance, his complexion darkened to a deep mauve by the suns of many Pollinations. For all his age he looked youthful still, too young to be the brother of so venerable a personage as Merian. Machanat's locks were a deep midnight red with no sign of blackening and his bright red eyes were sharp and piercing.
    "Are you sad?" asked the Prince.
    "Of course. I shall miss my brother. I love him and besides there is a feeling of security implicit in being younger than others: in having some one of greater experience to turn to when need arises. Although we do not fear death of itself, nevertheless the world of beyond is an unknown place. It may not be free of its own dangers. Indeed I believe it is for that reason that Merian is particularly anxious to see you. At the moment he sleeps and I will not waken him. You must he hungry and thirsty after your journey. Your room is ready for you. Go and wash while I get a meal ready and then while we eat you can tell me all the news of Born, and especially of Annalor and Merianon."
    Alorn bathed his face and hands in the rivulet that gushed into his tiny room through a hole in the wall. Then he returned to the living room where Machanat had already put bread and fruit on the table. There was jam made from berries gathered on the hillside and there was hot wine to drink. All was the produce of Merian's labours and it filled Alorn with sadness to be eating it there with the old man himself dying in the next room.
    "How is Annalor?" Machanat interrupted his melancholia and Alorn was glad to tell his father-in-law all the news of the family. He showed him the painting of Merianon he had brought with him.
    "It is time I visited Onuma again," mused Machanat. "I don't want to become a stranger to my grandchild.''
    They finished their meal and repaired to the fireside.
    "We had a sister, Merian and I," remarked Machanat unexpectedly. Seeing the look of astonishment on Alorn's face, he smiled.
    "It is really not a surprising thing in itself," he admonished. "Your surprise arises I suppose from you never having heard us speak of her. We rarely do, for she died long ago; more than two thousand cycles since." It was Machanat who now looked astonished as he calculated the passage of so much time. "She was so young," he continued sadly. "An illness overcame her. I mention her now because Merian has been talking of her. He may perhaps mention her to you. Mynedd she was called.'' He spoke the name softly with a long ago look in his eyes. "He hopes that soon he will see her again and our parents too of course, but especially Mynedd for she had her whole life still to live when she departed for the worlds beyond. She will have lived it there. We wonder how she has fared." He sighed and after a while began to speak of other, more recent events.
    Abruptly he broke off in the middle of relating the latest news from Twoom, capital of the Vale of Tamon.
    "Merian is awake. I felt his mind stir."
    Alorn stood up.
    "I will speak to him."
    The Prince tapped on the stout ocken of the sage's bedroom door and pushed it open without waiting, so to spare the old man the effort of calling out. He crossed to the bed through the darkness of the room.
    "I have come at last," he murmured. "Shall I light the lamp?"
    Merian grunted an assent and Alorn took the lanthorn out to the living room. He lit it with a burning spill from the fire and reentered the old man's room. He set the lamp on a table and its pale blue glow drove the gloom into the corners of the chamber. Now he could see Merian properly. His hair and beard were quite black and his once so observant eyes now seemed turned inwards. His face was as pale as Talas seen through morning mist but its expression was peaceful and composed.
    Alorn sat on a chair by the bed and smiled at his old friend.
    "I have brought you a present," and he produced the portrait of Merianon. The old man returned the smile and took the roll. Alorn was reassured to see that the hand which grasped the picture was still steady.
    "Thank you," acknowledged Merian and his voice, although quiet, was clear and firm. He studied the likeness.
    "He will have your resolution and strength of character " he prophesied, "and Annalor's gentleness and understanding."
    Alorn laughed.
    "Am I then obstinate, rough and unsympathetic?" he asked.
    Merian grinned back and his whole expression was suddenly younger and stronger but he did not reply.
    "I have not thought of myself as being resolute or strong," continued Alorn in a more serious tone. "If you knew the doubts and hesitations which afflict me you would not call me so."
    "I am glad you have doubts " replied Merian. "It is important constantly to question oneself, to probe one's motives. And sometimes it is right to hesitate, to have second thoughts, indeed as many thoughts as there is time for. There is no fault in that. The important thing is to act when the time is finally ripe. Then you must put doubt aside and eschew hesitation. This I know you can do."
    "But I can never be as strong and sure as you. We shall miss you sorely. In times of trouble you have ever been the firm foundation on which we have built our defence. Your advice has always been good; your knowledge and understanding surpassing all others."
    "Are you trying to make me feel guilty at leaving you?" teased Merian.
    "Of course not. You have lived long and given more of yourself than anyone I know. You deserve to rest. I am merely thinking selfishly."
    "I am not so sanguine as you about the prospect of rest."
    "So Machanat hinted. Do you have any reason for apprehension?"
    Merian did not answer directly but reverted to their earlier exchange.
    "In some ways you are right. I am going before I ought. My tussle with the Psychologist has sapped my strength prematurely."
    "I would not describe so fierce a contest as a mere tussle," protested Alorn. "Nevertheless if it is that which ails you, might you not recover from it in time, resting quietly here?"
    "It is not physical fatigue which afflicts me but a weariness of spirit. The Psychologist posed questions which strike at the root of the beliefs which have sustained me through two and a half millennia. The questions were not of course new to me. I have faced them again and again throughout my life; have wrestled with them as I tramped the hills; have discussed them endlessly with my brother and with others.     "In essence they arise from the struggle for existence; they concern the rights of individuals and species to supersede others; they involve the whole process of evolution and whether it should be resisted. They are not really soluble in terms of the physical universe and this is a conclusion long accepted by me, albeit with dissatisfaction. But the Psychologist presented these problems in a more acute form. He used my own partial answers to justify his maniacal values. Presented side by side, his way of life and our own are poles apart and it seems obvious that our ideals are right and just, while his were deluded and evil. Yet it is possible to connect these apparent opposites by a series of smoothly changing intermediate states in such a way that there appears to be a scale of behaviour from good to evil, and where on that scale the balance turns from one to the other is not only a matter of judgment but seemingly an arbitrary one. How bad does a person have to be to be regarded as sufficiently evil to be resisted? It is an old question but one which still perplexes."
    "But actions are not to be judged in isolation," countered Alorn. "Motives too must he considered. It is those who strive towards the just and good end of the spectrum of behaviour who should be adjudged worthy, and those who seek always after evil, even if inefficiently, who should be condemned.''
    "It is good to hear you say so with assurance and passion and I would not undermine your beliefs for anything. Indeed I share them. But it is not simply an intellectual matter. A man needs faith in his ideals if he is to sustain them and my faith has been shaken. You might imagine that the example of the wickedness of the Psychologist would strengthen my belief in what is right, but evil contaminates us all. From what did his malice arise? Partly from adversity but mainly from straightforward selfishness. He argued that we are all selfish, that even those who appear to act altruistically do so only because they enjoy the feeling of piety it brings. That ancient saving 'Virtue is its own reward', was to him but another example of the selfishness of all creatures. Those who act virtuously do so because they like the self-satisfaction it gives them - it is pure indulgence."
    "That is sheer nonsense," denounced Alorn. "I cannot believe you give it credence."
    Merian smiled.
    "The robustness of your convictions is a comfort to me but my misgivings are not easily to be overcome. I have expounded the conundrum shorn of the subtleties which perplex me. It is I suppose a measure of my weariness that I can no longer shrug off these doubts as you do. But we must not waste time on casuistry. I have matters of importance to tell you."
    He closed his eyes and seemed lost in thought, so deep in thought indeed, that Alorn felt a sudden alarm that he might simply fade away. His concern may have communicated itself to Merian for the old man's eyes opened suddenly.
    "Danger threatens once more," he stated simply. "It has not yet impinged on Lavandrel. There is no sign of it here. I am as attuned as ever to all that occurs in the natural order and that has given me no cause for suspicion. The warning comes from beyond this world. I am now so close to the worlds beyond that I catch glimpses of them." He sighed. "People think of the afterworld as a place of rest after life's struggle. They are wrong. The strife continues but on a different plane and by different means. It rarely affects the physical world directly; much energy is needed to bridge the gap between our cosmos and the purely spiritual worlds of beyond."
    Alorn nodded.
    "My ancestor Mhod explained something of this to me when his manifestation visited me after the defeat of the Lords of Hate. He also said that it was easier for evil to break through the barrier because those who are wicked do not care what damage they do those who offer their vital energies for malign purposes."
    "That is so. Even the gentlest of contact, through the medium of dreams for example, can drain the receiver of his spiritual energy to a critical extent. Such intercourse must be kept to a minimum in the interests of the recipient. Those intent on evil have no qualms and their victims are often willing, thinking to gain power by 'raising the dead' or conjuring up devils and other powerful spirits. They are deluded! They are the slaves not the masters of those they summon.  But we are wasting time and I am weak.  Let me tell you what I fear."

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