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"Things changed after that," Lahr continued.
"Mazoz changed. Perhaps he realized just how much power he wielded. Or perhaps his injuries were greater than people thought. He withdrew most of the armies that occupied the northern kingdoms... effectively freeing them. He maintained his defenses to east and the west, though not as vigorously. The Covenant managed several successful campaigns to seize farmland from the edges of his kingdom. Most of the woodsmen returned to Verdentia. Those that didn't, simply stopped where they were. Usually along the border, which they could maintain through intimidation rather than force."
"That's a good thing, right?" said Dee. "The end of the war?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Mazoz was always cunning. Now, I fear he seeks new weapons and more efficient ways to achieve his ends. And those ends themselves may have changed."
"He's spent years studying the fragments of the White that he has in his possession. And as many more years going over the writings of this grandfather. And... repeating old experiments."
"I still don't get why that's bad."
"You will see. Quite soon."
Dee wondered how Lahr knew what a wizard king was doing behind the walls of his own city, but an answer didn't seem to be forthcoming. Nor did any additional information about Mazoz. Dee peppered him with questions for the next few hours, and quickly concluded that they'd reached the end of Lahr's knowledge of Mazoz and Verdentia. Lahr himself seemed embarrassed by this, but Dee was mostly satisfied. He had already said plenty. Mazoz may not be able to get her home, but he was the best shot she had at the moment.
All she had to do was get there without being killed. Then convince him to help her if he could... also without being killed.
It all sounded so easy.
"We are being watched," Lahr said, pointing skyward.
A large bird sailed past high above them.
A few seconds later, it flew back the other direction.
There was a longer pause, and then it re-appeared again. It circled twice before flying off.
"Problem?" said Dee.
"Most certainly. It's just a matter of how soon and how big. Hopefully they'll see our avoidance of the village as a peaceful gesture and not attack as a group, but Pardus won't let me go so easily."
"What's the deal with him, anyway?"
"I have made no deals with him," Lahr said, confused.
"Sorry, it's just an expression... why's he after you?"
"Rite of ascension," said Lahr. "I... my brother was king."
"Of... the forest. Of all the tribes from here to the great ocean."
"And that makes you... what?"
"The next king. Pardus challenged my brother and won. It is my brother's pelt he wears."
"Oh. Lahr, I'm so sorr-"
"It was a fight that he entered voluntarily. As are all acts of violence. I would say it was an unfortunate decision... but Pardus..."
Lahr gave an exasperated expression, and seemed lost in thought for a while. Eventually he found himself and kept talking.
"...leadership passes through blood. To pass to a new line of blood, all of the old must be spilled."
"So he's not king unless he kills you, too."
"...and I am not truly king until I meet his challenge."
"You don't want to fight him."
"No. For this he calls me a coward. But the lust for blood is not in me. The old ways are senseless and unnecessary. I... WE... are better than our savage history. What good was savagery against Mazoz, who could call great beasts from the sky? What good is violence against the Covenant, who can snare us with traps and swarm us with men who cannot die?"
"Wait... cannot die?"
Lahr waved his hand.
"A slight exaggeration, but you see the truth of it. Look at your friend... wherever he his. They may not be immortal, but their soldiers can kill dozens of normal men. And many of our strongest warriors."
"I've seen them," said Dee. "Most of them aren't as impressive as you think."
"But you see my point," Lahr sniffed. "Savagery has bought us nothing but more savagery. I will not perpetuate this."
"But if you were king-"
"The act of becoming king would invalidate the very change I wish to make, yes?"
"You'd have to kill Pardus."
"So... you're... running away?"
"I am exiling myself. To the north, beyond Verdentia and Mazoz. I've never seen the northern cities. I've heard tales... they have horses there! Can you imagine such a beast? It is like a centaur, but the top half-"
"I've seen horses."
Lahr looked at her doubtfully.
"We have them on my... sphere. And you have centaurs?"
"In the grasslands beyond the mountains. Far from here."
"What about... what else? Faeries? Elves? Dwarves?"
"I've not heard of these things. What kind of beasts are they?"
"Not beasts. They're... mythological creatures. Like centaurs. On my sphere."
"But the centaur are real." Lahr gave her doubtful look.
"Nevermind. So... I'm lost. You're in exile. The Woodsman wants his body back, and The Scarecrow-"
Dee paused. Earlier, the Scarecrow seemed reluctant to share information about his condition. Dee didn't know why, but she trusted him.
"What of the soldier?"
"What manner of sickness afflicts a member of the Covenant? As I said, they are very difficult to kill. I've never heard of one being sick or poisoned."
"Something they did to him. A punishment. He betrayed them, I think. Not sure."
"Yes, but what KIND? I am no shaman, but I know of many healing herbs, perhaps I know something that can heal him."
"You'll have to talk to him about that."
"But he doesn't talk."
"As long as it isn't the mind-worms." Lahr frowned. "Of all that I've seen, that is the worst. That would be the end of him. And of us as well, I think."