WITH OPEN HEART
"At ease, my large friend," Wingham said, patting his hands in the air to calm the half-orc.
But Olgerkhan would not be calmed. "She's dying! I tried to help, but I cannot."
"We don't know that she's dying."
"She's sick again, and worse now than before," Olgerkhan continued. "The castle grows and its shadow makes Arrayan sick."
Wingham started to respond again but paused and considered what Olgerkhan had said. No doubt the somewhat dim warrior was making only a passing connection, using the castle to illustrate his fears for Arrayan, but in that simple statement Wingham heard a hint of truth. Arrayan had opened the book, after all. Was it possible that in doing so, she had created a magical bond between herself and the tome? Wingham had suspected that she'd served as a catalyst, but might it be more than that?
"Old Nyungy, is he still in town?" the merchant asked.
"Nyungy?" echoed Olgerkhan. "The talespinner?"
"Yes, the same."
Olgerkhan shrugged and said, "I haven't seen him in some time, but I know his house."
"Take me to it, at once."
"To help Arrayan," Wingham explained.
The moment the words left his mouth, Olgerkhan grabbed his hands and pulled him away from the wagon, tugging him to the north and the city. They moved at full speed, which meant the poor old merchant was half-running and half-flying behind the tugging warrior.
In short order, they stood before the dilapidated door of an old, three-story house, its exterior in terrible disrepair, dead vines climbing halfway up the structure, new growth sprouting all over it with roots cracking into the foundation stones.
Without the slightest pause, Olgerkhan rapped hard on the door, which shook and shifted as if the heavy knocks would dislodge it from its precarious perch.
"Easy, friend," Wingham said. "Nyungy is very old. Give him time to answer."
"Nyungy!" Olgerkhan yelled out.
He thumped the house beside the door so hard the whole of the building trembled. Then he moved his large fist back in line with the door and cocked his arm.
He stopped when the door pulled in, revealing a bald, wrinkled old man, more human than orc in appearance, save teeth too long to fit in his mouth. Brown spots covered his bald pate, and a tuft of gray hair sprouted from a large mole on the side of his thick nose. He trembled as he stood there, as if he might just fall over, but in his blue eyes, both Olgerkhan and Wingham saw clarity that defied his age.
"Oh, please do not strike me, large and impetuous child," he said in a wheezing, whistling voice. "I doubt you'd find much sport in laying me low. Wait a few moments and save yourself the trouble, for my old legs won't hold me upright for very long!" He ended with a laugh that fast transformed into a cough.
Olgerkhan lowered his arm and shrugged, quite embarrassed.
Wingham put a hand on Olgerkhan's shoulder and gently eased him aside then stepped forward to face old Nyungy.
"Wingham?" the man asked. "Wingham, are you back again?"
"Every year, old friend," answered the merchant, "but I have not seen you in a decade or more. You so used to love the flavors of my carnival..."
"I still would, young fool," Nyungy replied, "but it is far too great a walk for me."
Wingham bowed low. "Then my apologies for not seeking you out these past years."
"But you are here now. Come in. Come in. Bring your large friend, but please do not let him punch my walls anymore."
Wingham chuckled and glanced at the mortified Olgerkhan. Nyungy began to fade back into the shadows of the house, but Wingham bade him to stop.
"Another time, certainly," the merchant explained. "But we have not come for idle chatter. There is an event occurring near to Palishchuk that needs your knowledge and wisdom."
"I long ago gave up the road, the song, and the sword."
"It is not far to travel," Wingham pressed, "and I assure you that I would not bother you if there was any other way. But there is a great construct in process - a relic of Zhengyi's, I suspect."
"Speak not that foul name!"
"I agree," Wingham said with another bow. "And I would not, if there was another way to prompt you to action."
Nyungy rocked back a bit and considered the words. "A construct, you say?"
"I am certain that if you climbed to your highest room and looked out your north window, you could see it from here."
Nyungy glanced back into the room behind him, and the rickety staircase ascending the right-hand wall.
"I do not much leave the lowest floor. I doubt I could climb those stairs." He was grinning when he turned back to Wingham, then kept turning to eye Olgerkhan. "But perhaps your large friend here might assist me - might assist us both, if your legs are as old as my own."
Wingham didn't need the help of Olgerkhan to climb the stairs, though the wooden railing was fragile and wobbly, with many balusters missing or leaning out or in, no longer attached to the rail. The old merchant led the way, with Olgerkhan carrying Nyungy close behind and occasionally putting his hand out to steady Wingham.
The staircase rose about fifteen feet, opening onto a balcony that ran the breadth of the wide foyer and back again. Across the way, a second staircase climbed to the third story. That one seemed more solid, with the balusters all in place, but it hadn't been used in years, obviously, and Wingham had to brush away cobwebs to continue. As the stairs spilled out on the south side of the house, Wingham had to follow the balcony all the way back around the other side to the north room's door. He glanced back when he got there, for Nyungy was walking again and had lost ground with his pronounced limp. Nyungy waved for him to go on, and so he pressed through the door, crossing to the far window where he pulled aside the drape.
Staring out to the north, Wingham nearly fell over, for though he had expected to view the growing castle, he didn't expect how dominant the structure would be from so far away. Only a few days had passed since Wingham had ventured to the magical book and the structure growing behind it, and the castle was many times the size it had been. Wingham couldn't see the book from so great a distance, obviously, but the circular stone keep that grew behind it was clearly visible, rising high above the Vaasan plain. More startling was the fact that the keep was far to the back of the structure, centering a back wall anchored by two smaller round towers at its corners. From those, the walls moved south, toward Palishchuk, and Wingham could see the signs of a growing central gatehouse at what he knew would be the front wall of the upper bailey.
Several other structures were growing before the gatehouse as well, an outer bailey and a lower wall already climbed up from the ground.
"By the gods, what did he do?" old Nyungy asked, coming up beside Wingham.
"He left us some presents, so it would seem," Wingham answered.
"It seems almost a replica of Castle Perilous, curse the name," Nyungy remarked.
Wingham looked over at the old bard, knowing well that Nyungy was one of the few still alive who had glimpsed that terrible place during the height of Zhengyi's power.
"A wizard did this," Nyungy said.
"Zhengyi, as I explained."
"No, my old friend Wingham, I mean now. A wizard did this. A wizard served as catalyst to bring life to the old power of the Witch-King. Now."
"Some curses are without end," Wingham replied, but he held back the rest of his thoughts concerning Arrayan and his own foolishness in handing her the book. He had thought it an instruction manual for necromancy or golem creation or a history, perhaps. He could never have imagined the truth of it.
"Please come out with me, Nyungy," Wingham bade.
"To there?" the old man said with a horrified look. "My adventuring days are long behind me, I fear. I have no strength to do battle with - "
"Not there," Wingham explained. "To the house of a friend: my niece, who is in need of your wisdom at this darkening hour."
Nyungy looked at Wingham with unveiled curiosity and asked, "The wizard?"
Wingham's grim expression was all the answer the older half-orc needed.
Wingham soon found that Olgerkhan had not been exaggerating in his insistence that the old merchant go quickly to Arrayan. The woman appeared many times worse than before. Her skin was pallid and seemed bereft of fluid, like gray, dry paper. She tried to rise up from the bed, where Olgerkhan had propped her almost to a sitting position with pillows, but Wingham could see that the strain was too great and he quickly waved her back to her more comfortable repose.
Arrayan looked past Wingham and Olgerkhan to the hunched, elderly half-orc. Her expression fast shifted from inviting to suspicious.
"Do you know my friend Nyungy?" Wingham asked her.
Arrayan continued to carefully scrutinize the old half-orc, some spark of distant recognition showing in her tired eyes.
"Nyungy is well-versed in the properties of magic," Wingham explained. "He will help us help you."
"Magic?" Arrayan asked, her voice weak.
Nyungy came forward and leaned over her. "Little Arrayan Maggotsweeper?" he said. The woman winced at the sound of her name. "Always a curious sort, you were, when you were young. I am not surprised to learn that you are a wizard - and a mighty one, if that castle is any indication."
Arrayan absorbed the compliment just long enough to recognize the implication behind it then her face screwed up with horror.
"I did not create the castle," she said.
Nyungy started to respond, but he stopped short, as if he had just caught on to her claim.
"Pardon my mistake," he said at last.
The old half-orc bent lower to look into her eyes. He bade Olgerkhan to go and fetch her some water or some soup, spent a few more moments scrutinizing her, then backed off as the larger half-orc returned. With a nod, Nyungy motioned for Wingham to escort him back into the house's front room.
"She is not ill," the old bard explained when they had moved out of Arrayan's chamber.
"Not sick, you mean?"
Nyungy nodded. "I knew it before we arrived, but in looking at her, I am certain beyond doubt. That is no poison or disease. She was healthy just a few days ago, correct?"
"Dancing lightly on her pretty feet when she first came to greet me upon my arrival."
"It is the magic," Nyungy reasoned. "Zhengyi has done this before."
"The book is a trap. It is not a tome of creation, but one of self-creation. Once one of suitable magical power begins to read it, it entraps that person's life essence. As the castle grows, it does so at the price of Arrayan's life-force, intellect, and magical prowess. She is creating the castle, subconsciously."
"For how long?" Wingham asked, and he stepped over and glanced with concern into the bedroom.
"Until she is dead, I would guess," said Nyungy. "Consumed by the creation. I doubt that the merciless Zhengyi would stop short of such an eventuality out of compassion for his unwitting victim."
"How can we stop this?" Wingham asked.
Nyungy glanced past him with concern then painted a look of grim dread on his face when he again met Wingham's stare.
"No, you cannot," Wingham said with sudden understanding.
"That castle is a threat - growing, and growing stronger," reasoned Nyungy. "Your niece is lost, I fear. There is nothing I can do, certainly, nor can anyone else in Palishchuk, to slow the progression that will surely kill her."
"We have healers."
"Who will be powerless, at best," answered the older half-orc. "Or, if they are not, and offer Arrayan some relief, then that might only add to the energy being channeled into the growth of Zhengyi's monstrosity. I understand your hesitance here, my friend. She is your relation - beloved, I can see from your eyes when you look upon her. But do you not remember the misery of Zhengyi? Would you, in your false compassion, help foster a return to that?"
Wingham glanced back into the room once more and said, "You cannot know all this for sure. There is much presumption here."
"I know, Wingham. This is not mere coincidence. And you know, too." As he finished, Nyungy moved to the counter and found a long kitchen knife. "I will be quick about it. She will not see the strike coming. Let us pray it is not too late to save her soul and to diminish the evil she has unwittingly wrought."
Wingham could hardly breathe, could hardly stand. He tried to digest Nyungy's words and reasoning, looking for some flaw, for some sliver of hope. He instinctively put his arm out to block the old half-orc, but Nyungy moved with a purpose that he had not known in many, many years. He brushed by Wingham and into the bedroom and bade Olgerkhan to stand aside.
The large half-orc did just that, leaving the way open to Arrayan, who was resting back with her eyes closed and her breathing shallow.
Nyungy knew much of the world around Palishchuk. He had spent his decades adventuring, touring the countryside as a wandering minstrel, a collector of information and song alike. He had traveled extensively with Wingham for years as well, studying magic and magical items. He had served in Zhengyi's army in the early days of the Witch-King's rise, before the awful truth about the horrible creature was fully realized. Nyungy didn't doubt his guess about the insidious bond that had been created between the book and the reader, nor did he question the need for him to do his awful deed before the castle's completion.
His mind was still sharp; he knew much.
What he did not comprehend was the depth of the bond between Arrayan and Olgerkhan. He didn't think to hide his intent as he brandished that long knife and moved toward the helpless woman.
Something in his eyes betrayed him to Olgerkhan. Something in his forward, eager posture told the young half-orc warrior that the old half-orc was about no healing exercise - at least, not in any manner Olgerkhan's sensibilities would allow.
Nyungy lurched for Arrayan's throat and was stopped cold by a powerful hand latching onto his forearm. He struggled to pull away, but he might as well have been trying to stop a running horse.
"Let me go, you oaf!" he scolded, and Arrayan opened her eyes to regard the two of them standing before her.
Olgerkhan turned his wrist over, easily forcing Nyungy's knife-hand up into the air, and the old half-orc grimaced in pain.
"I must... You do not understand!" Nyungy argued.
Olgerkhan looked from Nyungy to Wingham, who stood in the doorway.
"It is for her own good," Nyungy protested. "Like bloodletting for poison, you see?"
Olgerkhan continued to look to Wingham for answers.
Nyungy went on struggling then froze in place when he heard Wingham say, "He means to kill her, Olgerkhan."
Nyungy's eyes went wide and wider still when the young, strong half-orc's fist came soaring in to smack him in the face, launching him backward and to the floor, where he knew no more.