A westerly gale had blown in from the Ocean of Gnarl during the evening and was still building in ferocity. Winter storms were common on the west coast, but this tempest was wilder than most. Had the sky been clear, the light of the full moon would have illuminated the tiny coastal hamlet of Port Iku, but tonight the rain fell in torrents from turbulent black clouds that blocked all traces of moonlight. The village's breakwater protected the harbour from even the most determined waves, but the streets were flooding from the downpour and the shutters that had been left open were rattling and slamming in the tempest. On a night such as this, the roads crossing the hills above Port Iku became streams of mud, and access to the village was nearly impossible. Anyone trying to reach the port would be spotted by the ever vigilant locals; a lone candle lamp swaying in the distance revealing the stranger's approach.
Tonight there were more than observant locals watching the approaches to Port Iku. Royal guards were hidden in various locations around the village. Anyone travelling nearby would be seen and his presence signalled to Man-At-Arms. The master of weapons had chosen this location carefully. The seasonal weather was almost assured, and the hamlet's tiny population was alert to strangers. The landlord of the only tavern, The Catfish, was an old friend who had spent many years in the service of the king's army. Yurden had retired to Port Iku six years ago, but he maintained his friendship with his former comrades and welcomed them warmly whenever they should visit. He had agreed to provide the location for the forthcoming meeting without hesitation or questions.
Everything was set, but Man-At-Arms was uneasy. The request for the meeting was not his, and the weapons master suspected deception. Word had been sent from an old adversary asking for a parley; one whom Man-At-Arms would never have trusted even if his life depended on it. Yet things were unsettled in Eternia - peaceful at present, but unclear. A time of pebbles and ripples was the term his friend Eldrin had used recently. Man-At-Arms understood none of it; the magical threads which bound the universe were beyond his comprehension. But the mages and sorcerers were troubled. He doubted he would even have agreed to the meeting had the Sorceress of Grayskull not insisted it go ahead with her present.
A brief flash of lamplight provided the signal that the subject had entered The Catfish. Man-At-Arms turned to the Sorceress, lifting the hood of his walrus-hide cloak that protected him from the torrential rain. The Sorceress of Grayskull was similarly-attired. They had chosen to wait outside in the darkness, despite the horrendous weather. They would wait a little longer before venturing into the tavern; long enough for the guardsmen to confirm the stranger was alone and had not been followed.
"Our guest has arrived, Sorceress," remarked Man-At-Arms, his voice barely heard amidst the gusting wind. There was a hint of surprise in his voice, for he had doubted the request for the meeting had been genuine.
The Sorceress nodded, shielding her face from the rain. "This is the first step on an unexpected journey, Man-At-Arms," she said. "Be prepared for everything you know to be challenged. Unplanned events are about to unfold, and we shall learn a little of them tonight. Trust in the Elders, my old friend, even when the truth is frightful."
"Sometimes it is better not to know the truth," replied Man-At-Arms.
"You will recall those words before long," said the Sorceress. Even in the darkness, Man-At-Arms glimpsed the sorrow on her beautiful, ageless face.
The darkness of the mighty underground caverns of Valmorlar presented no difficulty for the arachnoid named Webstor. His three pairs of blood-red eyes caught even the slightest glimmer of light emanating from the crystals in the rocky walls of the ruined subterranean city. Sensory organs in his many limbs detected the faintest of movements. Webstor was at home in the blackness, navigating the sheer walls and chambers with ease.
He still wondered how he had ended up in the silent city beneath the Ice Mountains. To venture this far north was unwise. He had to rely on the human aspect of his physiology to cope with the cold, and even that was difficult. He did not like wearing the clothes of men - the garments hindered the movement of his limbs. When he had entered Valmorlar and found shelter from the icy winds, he had discarded the cloak. Safe from the elements, Webstor had spent weeks exploring the long-abandoned city in the near darkness, wondering what had befallen the civilisation that once resided here. He did not mind the city's emptiness and eerieness; in fact he delighted in the solitude. He knew he could find food here; small creatures scurrying in the silent maze. Yet he also knew he would not stay. Something had led him here and something would make him leave.
Venturing into yet another cavernous space, Webstor imagined the size of the chamber in which he stood. It was too big and too dark even for his eyes to evaluate, but he sensed from the air that the cavern was huge. Nearby he saw the outline of a ruined bridge. The architects of Valmorlar had shaped great archways from the rock, but many of the bridges had collapsed. This one was no different; the span was broken. Webstor continued to explore.
Standing alone in the darkness, Webstor suddenly detected a faint vibration through the soles of his feet. This was new - something he had not yet experienced in the ancient city. He wondered if the movement revealed the presence of an animal nearby. Webstor dropped to his knees and splayed out his arms, setting the tip of each one on the floor. In doing so, he detected the vibration again, and sensed the direction it came from. He changed his mind. This was not an animal.
With curiosity, Webstor clambered effortlessly towards the vibration's source. He realised that he might be approaching danger, but he was compelled to continue. The sensation grew stronger as he crawled silently down a near-vertical slope, deeper into the darkness. The thing was pulsing energy into the rock. Webstor sensed it was reacting to his presence, for the rapidity of the pulsations increased steadily. Yet it was not alive. Webstor nearly stopped. He had never encountered anything like this before and he feared it.
Venturing closer, Webstor glimpsed the artefact. It was partially hidden in the rubble at the bottom of a crevasse. With care, the arachnoid neared the object. The pulsation vibrated through his entire body. Webstor's eyes noticed the long, slender shape of the object and he suspected it was a staff or spear. He reached forward slowly, grasped the artefact and pulled it clear of the rubble. Suddenly he found himself staring at a great horned skull at the head of the staff and felt a rush of malevolent power emanate from it. He knew this was more than a staff... it was a weapon and a magical catalyst. Suddenly the weapon ceased pulsing its magical energy. It went completely silent; as cold as the ice-covered mountains above Valmorlar. In that moment it became nothing more than an ugly staff. Yet Webstor was left with one enduring sensation - a compelling need to return the long-lost artefact to its owner.
Man-At-Arms and Teela the Sorceress of Grayskull entered Yurden's tavern, glad to be out of the wind and rain, but cautious about what they would encounter. Candles burned with a pale glow throughout the room, half-illuminating the occupants. Man-At-Arms did not bother looking at anyone. The tavern was fuller than usual tonight, for a dozen men and women seated apparently randomly amongst the tables were, in fact, royal guards. The old warrior and his companion walked towards the bar.
"Welcome to The Catfish," said Yurden. "It's a perilous winter's evening to be abroad!" Yurden then dropped his voice to a whisper. "Your guest is in the corner. She walked in and sat down without saying a word."
Man-At-Arms nodded. He and the Sorceress walked slowly towards the lone figure seated in the darkest corner of the tavern. As they approached, she lifted the hood of her cloak from her face. Her skin was pale and there was darkness around her eyes, but she still had a strong bearing and proud visage. "I'm glad you came," she remarked softly. "I thought you would stay away."
"Had the decision been mine alone, I would have done," replied Man-At-Arms sternly. "I have no desire to spend any time in your company other than to deliver you to the mercy of the king. However, the Sorceress has persuaded me to listen to you. What is it that you want?"
"I seek sanctuary," answered Evil-Lyn, and in that moment Man-At-Arms realised she was truly afraid.