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II

    They walked the remainder of the night through the sheltering forest, Kinson leading, Bremen a shadow following in his footsteps. Neither spoke, comfortable with the silence and each other. They did not see the Skull Bearer again. Bremen used magic to hide their tracks, just enough to conceal their passing without calling attention to it. But it seemed that the winged hunter had chosen no to go below the Streleheim in its search, for had it done so they would have sensed its presence. As it was, they sensed only the creatures who lived there and no others. For the moment at least, they were safe.

    Kinson Ravenlock's stride was tireless, its fluid movement honed and shaped from dozens of years of travel afoot through the Four Lands. The Borderman was big and strong, a man in the prime of his life, still able to rely on reflex and speed when the need arose. Bremen watched him admiringly, remembering his own youth, thinking how far down the path of his life he had travelled. The Druid Sleep had given him a longer life than most -- a longer one than he was entitled to by nature's law -- but still it was not enough. He could feel his strength leaking from his body almost daily. He could still keep up with the Borderman when they travelled, but it was no longer possible to do so without the aid of his magic. He supplemented himself at almost every turn these days, and he knew that the time left to him in this world was growing short.

    Still, he was confident in himself. He had always been so, and that more than anything had kept him strong and alive. He had come to the Druids as a young man, his training and skills in the fields of history and ancient tongues. Times had been much different then, the Druids still active in the evolution and development of the Races, still working to bring the Races together in the pursuit of common goals. It was only later, less than seventy years ago, that they had begun to withdraw from thier involvement in favor of private study. Bremen had come to Paranor to learn, and he had never stopped wanting and needing to do so. But learning required more than closeted study and meditation. It required travel and interaction with others, discussions on subjects of mutual interest, an awareness of the tide of change in life that could only come from observance, and a willingness to accept that the old ways might not offer all the answers.

    So it was that early on he accepted that magic might prove a more manageable and durable form of power than the sciences of the old world before the Great Wars. All the knowledge fleaned from memories and books from the time of Galaphile forward had failed to produced what was needed of science. It was too fragmented, too removed in time from the civilization it was needed to serve, too obscure in its purpose to provide the keys to unlock the doors of understanding. But magic was another matter. Magic was older than science and more readily accessible. The Elves, who had come from that time, had knowledge of it. Though they had lived in hiding and isolation for many years, they posessed books and writings far more decipherable in thier purpose than those of the old-world sciences. True, much was still missing, and the great magics of faerie were gone and would not be easily recovered. But there was better hope for these than for the sciences over which the Druid Council continued to struggle.

    But the Council remembered what evocation of the magic had cost them in the First War of the Races, what had befallen Brona and his followers, and they were not about to unlock that door again. Study of magic was permissible, but discouraged. It was treated as a curiosity with few usable tools, the practice in general not to be embraced as a doorway to the future under any circumstances. Bremen had argued the point endlessly and without success. The majority of the Druids at Paranor were hidebound and not open to the possibility of change. Learn from your mistakes, they intoned. Do not forget how dangerous the practice of magic can be. Best to forget your momentary interests in place of serious study. Bremen would not, of course -- could not, in fact. It went counter to his nature to discard a possibility simply because it had failed once. Failed because of blatant misusem, he would remind them -- something that did not necessarily have to happen a second time. A few agreed with him. But in the end when his persistence grew intolerable and he was banished from the Council, he departed alone.

    He travelled then to the Westland and lived with the Elvesfor many years, studying their lore, poring over their writings, trying to recover some of what they had lost when the creatures of faerie gave way to mortal men. A few things he brought with him. The secret of the Druid Sleep was already his, though still in its rudimentary form. Mastery of its intricacies and acceptance of its consequences toop time, and it did not serve as a useful tool until he was already quite old. The Elves embraced Bremen as a kindred spirit and gave him access to their store of small magics and all but forgotten writings. In time, he discovered treasures amid the discards. He went out into the other lands, discovering bits of magic their as well, though not so highly developed and in many instances foreign even to the people whom they served.

    All the while he worked steadily to confirm his growing conviction that the rumors of the Warlock Lord and his Skull Bearers were true, that these were the rebel Druids who had fled Paranor all those years ago, that these were the creatures who had been defeated in the Forst War of the Races. But the proof had been like the scent of flowers carried on the wind, there one moment and gone the next. He had tracked it relentlessly, across borders and kingdoms, through villages near and far, from one tale to the next. In the end, he had tracked it to the Skull Kingdom itself, to the heart of the Warlock Lord's domain, there in the catacombs where he had concealed himself with the dark one's minions, waiting out events that would allow him to escape with his truth. Had he been stronger, he might have gotten to that truth sooner. But it had taken him years to develop the skills necessary to survive a journey north. It had taken years of study and exploration. It might have taken less time had the Council supported him, had they put aside their superstitions and fears and embraced the possibilities as he had, but that had never happened.

   


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