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The Final Testimony
by Darrell Whitney


Jarod Cove liked the quiet. He would have called himself an introspective man, and in the cool desert nights of the planet Motavia he could sit out behind his home with a flask of cold neimila, sipping the spiced thorn palm liquor, watching the stars, and dreaming of other times and places. Cove had been a seafarer in his youth, sailing on boats and rafts to Uzo, Torinco, Valhalla, and other, even uncharted islands. He liked to dream about those days, the adventures he'd had before he lost his right leg just below the knee to an elmelew's claws. He and his mates had been merchants when the trading was good, pirates when it was not.

He'd have liked to tell the stories of his adventures to his grandchildren one day, but he'd never married, and so he told his stories to himself instead. Cove never got roaring drunk, but a light veil of alcohol in the blood maintained by slow sipping helped to hide the regrets and let him think only of the successes.

It was also enough to dull his senses, keep the awareness of the soft footfalls on the sand behind him from sinking into his brain until it was too late. Cove felt the cold pain like a shaft of ice as his own ceramic knife, a relic from his seafaring days, plunged into his back.

The knife hadn't really killed him, though. In all the ways that were important, he'd already been dead for over a decade anyway.

*     *     *     *     *

Alys Brangwin shaded her eyes against the sun as she walked into the little camp. No one was about, which seemed sensible given the heat. The hunter wished she could have been inside too, out of the sun, but she had a job to do.

"Hello! Professor Nara?"

"Yes, what is it?" groused a female voice. "Can't you see I'm--" The voice broke off as a head popped out of the nearest tent. "Oh, you must be the hunter. Come on in out of the heat or you'll bake, and then what good will you be?"

"I'm sure the local sand worms know an excellent recipe for baked hunter."

The shade made a big difference; Alys' impending heat headache began to ebb almost at once. The large tent was similar in size and shape to a native Motavian home, round and designed for long-term habitation. The furnishings were simple--a cooking area, a trunk, a small hard-backed chair, and a table piled high with books, papers, and bric-a-brac which were probably historical artifacts.

Professor Nara was a small woman, her black hair pulled into a tight bun, who peered at Alys through small, wire-framed spectacles. Alys felt something like an artifact under study herself as the professor noted her pretty face, soft brown hair held off her forehead by a thin wire circlet, tall and athletic body beneath her red dress and black bodysuit, and the paired slashers at her belt. Alys' features were feminine, even soft; their strength came from her expression, and the force of character of the woman within.

"You look like you'll do. Have a seat and I'll fill you in. What do you know so far?"

Alys sat on the edge of the trunk, which looked softer than the cot.

"Not much. You're here conducting an archaeological expedition, looking into ruins located just north of this camp. There have been troubles with some kind of monster, so you went to the Hunters' Guild to hire a professional to solve the problem."

"Well, in general terms that's all there is to know. What you're lacking is only specifics. The investigation team consists...consisted...of five people: myself, my assistant Colin, and three students who are mainly along to do the manual labor named Louisa, Marc, and Damon. About five hundred years ago, there was a temple here, maybe bigger than the Soldiers' Temple near Krup. The village of Monsen to the southeast began as a set of inns and so on designed to cater to the needs of pilgrims. It's positively fascinating how much a site like this can teach us about our past and how our culture has evolved."

Alys wasn't particularly impressed by archaeology; she preferred to live in the present.

"What about the monster?"

"The attacks started two weeks ago. We'd quit work for the night and when we'd return in the morning our rope barriers marking the grid would be torn down, holes partially filled in, the supports for a deep excavation smashed, and similar acts of brute vandalism. We'd have guessed it was the work of Parmanian hands, except that the tracks were all monstrous, and the damage looked like whomever did it hadn't used hands or tools.

"That happened three or four times, not every night, but now and again, enough the be irritating. Then, the creature struck right here in camp. Our storage tent was ripped to shreds, much of our equipment smashed, and several crates of artifacts packed for transport to the Academy were crushed--nothing of monetary value, but a priceless loss in terms of scholarship. When we saw that, we decided that there must be something with at least rudimentary intelligence involved trying to keep us away from the site, so we contacted the Hunters' Guild."

Alys nodded in agreement. The conclusion was obvious, even if the motive--if the thing even had a motive--was still obscure.

"We decided to post watches around the camp, taking turns standing guard at night. That worked for three days. Then, last night..." Nara's voice trailed off with a distasteful frown, but she collected herself and continued. "Last night we were awakened by a scream, we rushed out of our tents, and we found Damon dead."

"He was the one on watch?"

The professor looked at Alys scornfully.

"Of course. Really, if you're going to limit your questions to--" She broke off again, then held up her hand for forgiveness. "I apologize. I should know how important it would be for you to establish the specific facts as it is a key element of my own profession. But then, I suppose it is an easy trap to fall into, believing that one's own discipline requires the highest level of skill and that all others are merely inferior reflections."

"Did the rest of you see anything?" Alys asked, deciding not to bother with the tangent.

"You mean, any sign of what the creature was? No, I didn't, and none of the others said anything. There were more tracks, though."

"Could I see the body?" The kind of injuries inflicted could help tell Alys what she was up against; she didn't want to prepare for a scorpirus and run into a fanbite. The tracks would be even more useful in that respect; she'd have to check them, too.

"It's been taken into the village for burial," Nara said. "The undertaker is named Hogarty."

Alys drummed her fingers on her knee.

"Let's talk about motive. Have you met with opposition in the village, or discovered anything here that might suggest a reason someone wants you off the site?"

"Nothing here...the fact is, we haven't found any golden hoards and don't expect to. There was some opposition in town, though, mainly from Lomar Drake, head of the Monsen Historical Society. He claimed that the temple was a sacred place and shouldn't be violated. An archaeologist learns to get used to that sort of complaint."

Alys nodded, making a mental note of the name.

"Let's take a look at the spot where the student was killed."

"All right; it's just this way."

The place Nara showed Alys was relatively innocuous. The disturbed sand and a splash of blood on a rock were the only signs of violence. It didn't take long to find the unusual tracks, and Alys had to admit that they really were odd. The creature's feet appeared birdlike, with two toes pointing forward and one back. They were new tracks, though, ones the hunter had never seen before. Interested, Alys began to follow them away from the body, only to discover that after about a hundred yards the tracks simply ended, with no change in the terrain to give a reason. The path of tracks that led to the body did the same thing. It was as if the beast appeared from nowhere, approached the camp, killed Damon, retreated, and disappeared to wherever it had come from.

Alys wondered if there was more that was birdlike about the creature than just its feet; if it could fly, that would explain the sudden appearance and disappearance of the tracks. The only problem with that easy answer was that the tracks showed no differences that would indicate a shift in weight for takeoff or the impact of landing.

About another hundred yards further from the camp was a ridge of rock, a jagged outcropping of bare stone. Alys didn't expect to find tracks there and she didn't, but on the far side of the ridge she did find the footprints of a single Parmanian, in a dual track leading to and from Monsen. Unfortunately, the soft sand did not retain details well, so there was no way to match the tracks to any particular foot, but they were suggestive. Who had come out to the ridge, and why? Alys' intuition told her it would be worth discovering.

Before leaving the camp, Alys talked with the assistant professor and the two surviving students, but they had nothing to add. None of the three had seen the mysterious monster, or knew anything else about Damon's death.

The village undertaker, on the other hand, was quite informative.

"Never seen anything like it," the lean, whiplike man said. "I get people killed by fanbites and caterpillars in here now and again, accidental death, even a couple of murders in my time, but nothing like this."

He drew back the cloth that covered the student's body. He was right; the death was out of the ordinary. Even Alys, who as a hunter was used to violent death, had never seen anything like it. Damon's body had been brutally hacked and stabbed with a heavy, sharp blade, his throat chopped open and his torso punctured by several wounds. As if that wasn't enough, the skin was charred and blackened by fire in many placed, the right half of his face among them.

"There weren't any bite marks, or ripping wounds from claws?" Alys asked, putting the horror aside by focusing on business.

Hogarty shook his head.

"You mean, like an animal's or Biomonster's? No, none of that. The wounds were definitely the work of a blade."

Alys had a good deal of experience with dead bodies, an unpleasant part of her job. The blows had been very hard, and the blade as sharp as any Alys had seen, longer than a knife and broad-bladed along at least part of its length, but a blade nonetheless. The wounds had been made by a weapon, not a beast. The burns could have been the result of the FOI technique, a power of fire-conjuring Alys herself along with many Parmanians possessed, or something even simpler, like burning lamp oil.

The signs pointed to a living person, a Parmanian or native Motavian, using a weapon to kill Damon. The tracks, though, pointed the other way, to a monster instead of a person.

Unless they'd been faked.

It was possible. With a pair of special shoes, someone could walk from the body out to the desert, then return walking in his or her own tracks. Done twice, this trick would produce the mysterious "appearing" and "disappearing" tracks. Then the killer could simply put on normal boots, the tracks of which wouldn't be noted in the well-traveled camp area.

The scream, though, contradicted that. The four others had rushed out at the sound of the scream; there wouldn't have been time to fake the tracks.

Oh, yes there would, Alys thought. The scream might not have been Damon's. The killer could have struck silently, mutilated the body, faked the evidence of a mysterious monster, and only then given a scream to lure the other three to the staged scene.

"All very logical," Alys murmured, "but I'm not sure I believe it."

"Pardon me?"

"Just talking to myself. I'm surprised the local watch or whatever they're called here hasn't investigated this death."

The undertaker shrugged.

"Why bother? Pretty clear it's a monster attack, right? Besides, Captain Pelton's busy working on the murder."

"The murder?" Alys asked in surprise.

"Yeah, an old guy named Jarod Cove, knifed in the back. Not a fight, either; someone just slipped up and stabbed him out back of his house. No one can figure out why, either. No one hated him, his house wasn't robbed, and he didn't have any heirs, greedy or otherwise."

Alys glanced down at the butchered student.

"Was Cove's body like this one?"

"No; Cove was only stabbed once, and he wasn't burned at all. The method was completely different."

Alys shrugged; it had only been a thought.

The door creaked open, and a tall, broad-shouldered man with violet hair and a narrow moustache walked in. A sword was belted at his waist, and a gold badge on his sand worm hide leather armor indicated that he was the Captain Pelton the undertaker had mentioned.

"But you must stop them," a haranguing voice followed the watch officer into the room. "They're desecrating the sacred site--the site that was responsible for Monsen's creation! Our village came into being to serve the Temple of the Earth, and if it is taken away,, piece by piece, by these outsiders then the vengeance of the ancients will not only fall on the defilers but upon us as well! We exist for it and it alone!"

Pelton spun to face the white-bearded man who'd scurried in after him.

"Lomar, you've been nagging at me for the better part of a month about that. My job is to enforce the law, and the village elders decided to let the Academy's scientists excavate out there. That's the end to it!"

"Can't you see?" pleaded the other man, who had to be the Lomar Drake referred to by Professor Nara. "The first one is dead already! The curse has begun its work!" He pointed dramatically at the corpse of Damon. Alys had to admit that the savagely mutilated body was an effective visual aid.

Suddenly, the wild-eyed historian rounded on her.

"You!" His finger trembled as he pointed at Alys. "You are the hunter those accursed desecrators have hired to protect them from the righteous wrath of the ancient spirits. The Temple of the Earth is warded by forces no mortal can face and win. Go now and save your life!"

"You'd like that," Alys said calmly. "If I left, it would put the investigation team at the mercy of whatever is out there."

Drake's eyes widened, and he twitched spastically.

"Unbeliever! You have no respect for ancient magic! You will only perish with the fools from the Academy! The curse be on your head!" Spittle flew from his lips as he screeched, his voice especially loud in the small morgue.

"That's enough, Lomar," Pelton said firmly. "Keep harassing people over this and I'll have to lock you up." He took the man's arm firmly and steered him out the door. When he turned back to Alys and the undertaker, he was shaking his head sadly.

"I don't know what's gotten into him. Lomar was always a little strange from studying those old books of his, but ever since Cove's death, he's been completely insane on the subject of that ruin. It's enough to make me wonder if there really is something out there."

"I'm sure Damon would agree with that," Alys said dryly, "though whether it's a person or a monster I'm not sure."

"That's what I'm here to check out. Is that him?"

"It is."

Pelton took a glance, then turned away, face pale and a look of pure anger in his eyes.

"Light, that's hideous. What could do something like that?"

"What, or maybe who," Alys said, extending her hand. "I'm Alys Brangwin from the Hunters' Guild, here to find out."

"Good to meet you," Pelton said, accepting the handshake. "I've heard something of your reputation; it's very good."

"I'll try to live up to it. Is it the death that caught your attention?"

"That's right. Everyone, including myself, has been assuming that a monster is responsible for what's been happening out there, but with a boy dead it didn't seem right just to assume and leave it at that."

Alys nodded.

"Good thinking." She went on to explain what she'd found at the site, and her conclusions about the body, getting Hogarty to provide specifics where needed.

"So you think this is murder?"

"There's definitely some intelligence involved, more than just an animal's. I don't know if it's a person, or something else like Drake believes, but I'm sure there's a murderer, not just a death."

Pelton looked at her oddly.

"You think there might be something to that rot?"

"I'm not ruling it out. I've seen things in my life that make me believe in the possibility of ancient curses," Alys said, thinking of the esper wizard, Rune Walsh, whom she'd traveled with in the past. Rune had used true magic, not just the power of techniques, and power like that had existed in the past, too. An ancient curse was possible, but if one was at work, it had been imbued with a malign intelligence.

The captain looked skeptical.

"Maybe so, but given the evidence, I'd better go out and ask some questions. It sounds to me like one of the Academy team is responsible for this. Some kind of scholastic jealousy, do you think? Or has someone been reading too many of the wrong kind of books and started to believe what Lomar does--and decided to make the curse come true?"

"I wouldn't know," Alys said curtly. She wasn't getting paid to jump to conclusions.

"No, I suppose not." Pelton shrugged, then took his leave. Alys thanked the undertaker and left as well.

A cool breeze kicked up, cutting the blasting heat of the desert sun. If Pelton didn't hurry, the wind would obliterate the tracks left in the soft sand. That was the captain's problem, though. Alys doubted he'd find anything, anyway; he lacked imagination, a fatal flaw for a mystery like this one.

"Hey, lady!" A girl of about ten was tugging on Alys' dress. She had a smudge of dirt on her nose and close-cropped hair; everything about her said "tomboy." Alys liked her immediately.

"Yes?"

"Are you really Alys Brangwin?"

"Yes."

"The Eight-Stroke Warrior?" she asked dubiously.

"Yes..." Alys replied through gritted teeth. She didn't like her nickname; it had been hung on her after one of her early jobs and she'd never been able to convince people of how stupid it sounded.

The girl tilted her head to one side, looking curiously at Alys

"You're too pretty to be Alys Brangwin."

Alys raised an eyebrow.

"Do you have any other complaints to register, or can I get on with my business?"

"Geez, you're touchy."

Alys fixed the girl with a sharp stare. It was a good stare, the kind that encouraged people into a closer acquaintance with the truth. Apparently it also worked on mouthy kids.

"All right, so maybe you are Alys. Anyway, you look a lot brighter than Pelton. He just says, 'Go away, Rill,' and 'I don't have time for games, Rill.'"

That made sense. Pelton's no-nonsense, limited-imagination attitude didn't strike Alys as being good for dealing with kids, and Rill's conversational style wasn't likely to persuade him to listen. For someone who was so blunt-spoken, she was taking forever to get to the point.

"It's about old Mr. Cove. I know something about his murder."

"I'm not here to solve that," Alys pointed out.

"You're supposed to be this big hero!"

"Being a hero is nice; getting paid for it is better." Alys sighed, then added, "All right, I suppose someone has to hear you out, and it might as well be me. What do you know?"

Rill grinned.

"Everybody thinks Cove wasn't robbed because his house wasn't trashed and they found his strongbox full of meseta. They're wrong, though; something's missing."

The girl started off down the street as she talked, and Alys followed along.

"All right, then, what's missing?"

"A book. Not just any book, though. It's a really old book, maybe even a magic book!"

"Where did Cove get a magic book?"

"He used to be a pirate! That's how he lost his leg, in a battle at sea with monsters. He knew all kinds of great stories." Rill couldn't keep a trace of wistfulness out of her voice. "Not that I believed all of them, of course, 'cause some were pretty tall tales, but some were real. He'd been places and done stuff, not like most of us who've been stuck in this dust pit. He had a whole bunch of books, which he'd gotten when he and his crew salvaged a wreck."

Unlike piracy, salvage was a legal way to take someone else's goods at sea and keep them. The rule was "first come first served" when a ship had been wrecked; the cargo belonged to whomever could retrieve it.

"It was a cargo ship with some stuff Motavia Academy was shipping," Rill went on. "There was a big crate of old books on history and stuff. Old Lomar wanted Cove to sell them to the Historical Society, but Cove wouldn't, 'cause he said the books were like old friends. There was one book, though, that was special. He said he couldn't make himself destroy it, but that it shouldn't ever be read. That's why he didn't keep it with his other books, but in a secret place."

"So why--"

"Why did Cove show it to me?" Rill anticipated the question. "I thought the idea sounded silly, so I laughed like it was one of his fish stories, only he got all huffy and insisted it was the truth. So I said, 'Prove it!' and he did. He got this old book out of a secret hiding place and he showed it to me. It had this silvery design on the front that looked really weird. I mean, it creeped me out just to look at it, so I thought that maybe Cove really was telling the truth. He said the book was called the Testament of Xayn, but he wouldn't show me any more of it."

"Probably a good idea, if it's as bad as he said."

"Yeah," Rill agreed. "Of course, it's a good trick if it's all blank pages or something...but I don't think it was. So when I heard Cove had been...been murdered, I slipped into his house and took a look. The book was gone!"

"Where was it kept?"

"I'll show you. C'mon, it's this way."

Cove's home proved to be on the outskirts of town. The door was locked, but Rill jimmied it open with a flat piece of metal slipped between the door and the jamb.

"Cove showed me how to do that," Rill said with a wistful smile. Alys nodded; the average Motavian door lock wasn't much of a barrier to an industrious thief. They slipped into the little house and shut the door behind them.

"The secret compartment is over here." The girl led Alys into the kitchen, where she stopped next to a cupboard. "I know I shouldn't be opening cabinets in other people's homes without permission, but this is a special case." She opened the doors to the large upper compartment, then tapped the bottom of it.

"Hollow," Alys observed. The secret compartment was evidently in the divider between the top and bottom parts of the cabinet. Rill felt around inside until she found the two hidden switches, pressed them, and the hidden panel slid open.

"See? You can still see the outline in the dust!"

Rill was right; the large rectangular shape was faint inside the secret compartment but definitely there.

"This must have been why he was murdered!" the girl exclaimed.

"Maybe. Do you know if Cove told anyone else about the book?"

The girl's face fell.

"No one that I know."

"Too bad. Still, it doesn't mean that he didn't, or maybe someone saw him through that window." Alys pointed to a window which looked out behind the house, and which would have offered an excellent view of the cabinet to anyone standing outside. Rill's theory was a good one; if the book was valuable--or magical--it would make a first-class motive for murder. Captain Pelton ought to be told about this, not that he'd listen.

"Thanks, Rill."

"For what?"

"Trusting me."

"Oh, I...I just didn't want ol' Cove's death unpunished just 'cause Pelton won't listen to a kid."

"There are many stupid people out there."

They closed up the cabinet and left the house. One thought was on Alys' mind: that the two cases might be connected. It was the timetable that intrigued her. Two weeks ago, Jarod Cove was murdered and a supposedly magical book was stolen from him. Two weeks ago, the attacks on the investigation team had begun, carried out by a mysterious monster. The "monster" clues might have been faked, but maybe they hadn't been. The footprints leading to and from the rocky ridge sparked the hunter's interest.

Alys made certain that no one was around when she left Monsen with the setting sun. She'd taken a room at the inn, and with any kind of luck someone might think she was there, or the killer would be so confident he, she, or it wouldn't care.

"So you think it will attack again?" Nara asked over tea in her tent. The desert evening had cooled remarkably, the swings in temperature between day and night quite extreme.

"You were out working again. I think it'll keep coming so long as you do."

"I don't know why I keep on," Nara said, sipping her tea. "I mean, Damon is dead. He was a student entrusted to my care and he's dead now, because I insisted upon pressing on. Now, I still won't quit. It's as if I can't do anything else. Colin, Louisa, and Marc, too--there's been no talk at all of giving up."

"I wouldn't quit," Alys said. "If it was me, I'd make that wormkin put me under the earth before I gave him the satisfaction. Then again, I'm notoriously stubborn." She set her tea aside. "I'd better go take watch; I don't want to be out of position if something happens."

Alys' plan was simple. Like before, the team of scholars would take turns standing watch, but this time they weren't guards, but bait. Inside one of the living tents--Louisa's, she believed--Alys had an excellent vantage point to observe both the storage tent and the watcher. If something happened, Alys was to take care of the fighting while the scholar ran for safety.

The hours dragged by slowly. Patience wasn't one of the hunter's strengths, but Alys forced herself to remain alert. Keeping her concentration at its peak and her muscles from growing stiff wasn't easy, but it was her job and she made herself do it despite her mounting boredom.

It was good that she was able to, because when something finally happened, it happened fast.

Professor Nara had insisted on taking the same watch Damon had been killed on, so it was she who was almost taken by surprise as the thing shambled into camp. The monster moved quickly despite its ungainly stride, and the razor-sharp, two-foot blade that grew from its right arm nearly sheared into Nara's body as it had her student's, but Alys acted first. She threw her slashers, the boomerang-like bladed weapons slicing into the thing's sickly green body, drawing tar-like ichor from its wounds before they arced back for her to catch them.

The injured creature turned towards the new threat, swinging a bulbous, eyeless, tentacled head that seemed to grow where its left shoulder should have been to face Alys. Its lips drew back, and the hunter barely threw herself aside in time to avoid the lash of flame the monster belched at her.

Alys rolled in the sand, quickly coming upright. She almost responded with a FOI technique, then quickly realized that fire was not likely to be effective against a firebreathing monster. Instead, Alys drew upon her own inner power and sent out one of her slashers again, skimming low across the ground. It glowed brilliantly with bright orange light, and exploded upwards as it reached the creature's feet, spinning around and around it in a whirlwind of slashing blades. Alys' Vortex attack left it staggered and near death, and the hunter was about to try another throw of her slashers to finish it off, but she didn't need to.

"WAT!"

Professor Nara hadn't fled like she was supposed to, and it was the chilling burst of the scholar's technique that killed the monstrosity. Before the two women, the monster's body decayed into a seething mass of black slime in a matter of seconds.

There was no time to enjoy the victory. Alys' eyes scanned the ridge, and she thought she could make out the silhouette of a person. At once she was sprinting in that direction. As she grew nearer, the figure grew more distinct. She could also hear it, a male voice chanting words that made no sense to her, probably in the same ancient language Rune had used for his spells.

A brilliant circle of light took shape on the desert sand, a circle made up of twisting runes and symbols. In the air above it a shimmering and shifting could be seen, as if something was trying to take form out of the empty space. By the light of the circle Alys could see the thick, heavy book open in the chanter's hands, no doubt the missing Testament of Xayn.

Not wanting to face the next horror that would be conjured up, Alys hurled one of her slashers. The blade gleamed in the putrescent light as it arced through the air, then plunged through the Testament, neatly slicing it into two parts. The chanter screamed in rage; the spell broken, the circle and the shimmering vanished.

"Noooo! You witch! The power is mine! I won't let you take it away from me!"

The figure bounded off the ridge and charged directly at Alys, a heavy, steel-bladed sword clenched in its hands. As the wild-eyed man grew closer, Alys could see froth on his lips as he spat obscenities at her in languages never meant for a Parmanian voice.

She could also see his identity. It was not Lomar Drake.

It was Captain Pelton.

Alys dodged the crazed man's swing; his sword kicking up a shower of sand as it missed. She flicked her slashers closed, their folded blades making a pair of makeshift daggers which she used to deflect Pelton's next stroke. The force of the blow sent a shock up her arms; the captain was a strong man and he was using his full strength without control or restraint in the grip of his rage and madness. Alys quickly took notice of that and rather than blocking the crazed hacking and slashing directly instead attempted to dodge or guide away Pelton's attacks while she waited for an opening.

The opening came, as it had to with such an out-of-control foe, and Alys was quick to exploit it, kicking Pelton behind his right knee and sending him to the ground. The impact barely slowed him down, but it gave Alys an opportunity to hook another kick into his chin as he was getting up. She finished the fight by cracking the handle of a slasher into the madman's head behind his right ear. Monsen's chief law enforcement officer and only murderer sprawled on his face in the sand, unconscious.

"I really thought it was Drake," Alys murmured wryly.

*     *     *     *     *

"I must say," Professor Nara declared the next morning, "that I am surprised at how easy it was for a small town like Monsen to accept that an authority figure was a murderer."

"It was hard for them not to," Alys replied. "Pelton spends all his time raving until his voice gives out. Half the time it's not even in Parmanian. He's completely mad; the frustration of seeing his magic book chopped in two finished off even the veneer of sanity."

Nara frowned musingly.

"So why did he want to keep us out of the temple site?"

"He didn't."

Nara blinked.

"Alys, what do you mean?"

"Well, to go by what he's saying--and I'm guessing here for some of it, because Pelton isn't exactly coherent--he was after the Testament of Xayn."

"That's the book?"

Alys nodded.

"It originally belonged to Jarod Cove, the man who was murdered in Monsen a couple of weeks ago. Apparently Pelton found out about it; my personal guess is that Cove was afraid Lomar Drake would try to steal it so he asked the Captain for protection. Pelton became obsessed with the book, and so he murdered Cove and stole it."

Nara adjusted her spectacles.

"So, why bother us? One of my students is dead, Alys."

"He needed someone to blame. Drake was an easy suspect; he wanted Cove's books and he was pretty crazy on the subject of the temple. Pelton carried out a few attacks, then he'd probably have one of the monsters kill Drake, then deduce that Drake had murdered Cove to get the book to protect the temple, but lost control of the creature he summoned and it killed him, taking the book back to its infernal home."

"That is extremely twisted."

Alys sighed.

"Well, he'll pay the price. He'll spend the rest of his days as a raving madman, locked up in a murderer's cell, or executed, whichever is the local law. He's lost the thing he killed for, and although I'm not really a religious woman, I wouldn't want to meet whatever might have a claim on his soul now."

The professor gave an involuntary shiver.

"So, what are you going to do with the Testament of Xayn?"

Alys took out the ripped book. Though cut in two it could still be restored. That wasn't something she particularly wanted to see.

"This." She held the book up, focused her will, and commanded, "FOI!" The fire technique ignited the pages at once, and Alys flung the burning volume away, its two parts flying out into the desert like twin comets. They burned steadily but slowly, as if something was fighting the flames, but in the end the fire won out, and there was nothing left of the evil tome but the metal fittings and the twisted, silvery sigil that had been inset in the cover.

The wind picked up, and in a few moments even those last pieces were covered by the desert sands.

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