So, my publisher has sent over an “internally approved” cover. It’s a touch overly dramatic for my taste, but there are reasons I’m terrible at self-promotion/marketing.
I know things have been quiet around here. Part of that’s Covid, family stuff, and work. Part of it is that things have been moving and shaking behind the curtain.
The result is that about mid-October, I sent a query letter to McFarland Books. Got a positive response in less than 24 hours. Sent out a full proposal a few days later.
Yesterday, I signed a contract to publish a book built out of the series of posts about magic from 2016 (tagged Magic Series). I need to add at least another 7,000 words, and have it all revised for delivery by mid-February. So, if things go well, it should be on shelves around May 2021.
An unfortunate side effect of writing extended works of non-fiction (e.g. books), I’ve found, is that my subconscious keeps picking out things and making them into ideas for worldbuilding and fiction.
To that end, I’ve been mucking about with some concepts of magic (and non-humans) and idly playing with them, creating writing doodles, and abandoning the doodles. Still haven’t figured out what I want to do with the concepts. Even though I’ve put conscious development on hold (due to grading, family stuff, side jobs, and book work [start editing 47,000 words Monday!]), little flashes keep bursting.
Long story short, the doodles will start appearing here on Monday. Other things may follow, time and figuring out something solid depending.
Eventually the ghost stopped, Osric panting a few steps behind her.
They’d passed the largest of the temples a good hour earlier. Once again, all the buildings were smaller and dingier. Most had priests outside haranguing passersby. These were spread around shrines barely large enough for one person to enter.
It was outside one of the last of the larger structures that the ghost was floating.
Lacking any better ideas, Osric made his way up the steps, counting seventeen before he reached the doors. Those were easily three times his height and carved with scenes that he assumed held relevance to the temple’s faith. The wood was dark with age and accented with bright gold leaf that glittered in the sunlight. He ignored the stonework around the doors, focused on discharging his obligation to the spirit.
The spirit-speaker knocked with only slight hesitation.
He hoped, even as the sound was absorbed by the wood, that someone was inside and would hear.
That hope faded and he was about to leave when the door swung silently open to reveal a young man with shaven pate in black and silver robes.
“Open worship begins at seven,” he said, upon seeing Osric, and started to close the door.
“Wait!” the spirit-speaker tried to get in the way. “I don’t want to worship, I need information or advice . . . I can make a donation.”
The robed man seemed to consider for a time.
“We do not often fulfill the requests of non-believers. You may ask one question and I shall relay it to the priests,” he said, “But you will remain here and not set foot inside.”
Osric nodded, remembering that the portal was probably gone. “Of course . . . I’ve promised to aid a spirit in return for service. The spirit led me here when it came time to fulfill the contract. How can I lay her to rest?”
“For that, I needn’t bother the priests. Every acolyte and worshipper knows that answer,” he said. “Those who worship Ayleena must have their bodies returned to the goddess’ home dimension and the proper rites conducted there. Frankly, I am surprised one slipped through. The local temples see to all such arrangements.”
“Unless she died where there is no temple . . . what if the body cannot be recovered? And where is this dimension?”
“Just bring the body, or part of it, perhaps even something of great importance to the deceased here. We will see to the proper rites and send the remains to their final rest.”
Osric was about to accept when he saw the first emotion yet from the ghost. Her eyes were wide as she vehemently shook her head. For a moment, he forgot about his audience.
“Uh, great,” the spirit-speaker stammered, “I’ll do that . . . thanks.” He turned and tried to go down the steps nonchalantly, certain he was failing at the last part, before the doors closed. Were it not for the ghost’s reaction, he figured everything, even the temple’s secretiveness regarding its home and daily practices, sounded acceptable. He took it as a point of fact that all faiths, especially those back home, had some rites they kept secret from outsiders. And it made sense that these priests wouldn’t want competition for their goddess on her homeworld.
At a loss as to how to proceed, Osric surveyed the area from the bottom of the steps.
Block after block of temples and similar structures stretched along every street he saw. They covered every style and shape he could imagine and more beyond that. None looked even vaguely familiar. Nothing like the churches, synagogues, or even eastern temples he was used to seeing. People in one of them could probably help, he thought, but there was no way to figure out which one without knocking on every door, or finding a local guide . . . his magic was probably useless in that respect, or the ghost would have taken him to another temple.
Thinking of which, he motioned the ghost down a narrow alley between two ornate edifices.
“Ok, you can communicate, at least yes/no. You don’t want those priests, right,” he stated, thinking aloud. When she nodded, he added, “But my obligation has something to do with them. Do you know anyone who can help explain what you want?”
A shaken head. Damn.
Actually, that had been a dumb question. If she’d known anyone, then she wouldn’t have been there for him to summon.
When in doubt, conduct research.
“You don’t know where Ayleena’s home dimension is, do you?”
A shaken head.
“Not that you could tell me even if you did, huh?” Osric let his eyes wander and take in the sights as he walked and thought. “I’m willing to bet that you’re not a follower of that goddess, are you?” Another shaken head.
Not a worshipper, but she’d led him to the temple. Most ghosts had something left to do in the physical realm, that was spirit-speaking 101. Everyone with the talent learned that even before they had any formal training. Whatever she had left was tied to this Ayleena, at least this temple. Or so she believed at least, which was close enough as a starting point. It could involve someone or something inside the temple, maybe even her remains.
“A person or object,” he mused aloud, only realizing he’d done so when the ghost once again shook her head. Alright, so the place itself, or she was mistaken. That left the door open for research. Priorities. First, what did he know about this goddess? Nothing. Finding out more would, probably, help.
“Do you know any bars, restaurants, or coffee shops that the theological types frequent around here? It might help,” he asked his guide. The bazaar didn’t seem like the kind of place that would have a public library and he didn’t know anyone with a private collection. With the priest’s secretiveness, it wasn’t likely there’d be any books or whatnot about them out in the open either. But, Osric thought as he followed the ghost, they might get lucky by chatting with some priests. Even if they weren’t well versed about Ayleena, he bet they would keep an eye on the competition, especially with the apparent success the temple’d had.
After a couple blocks another thought occurred.
“How long have you been here?” the spirit-speaker forgot her lack of speech for a moment. “More than a decade?”
She nodded and kept drifting.
“More than a century? . . . More that fifty years? . . . Thirty-ish? . . . Really? Hmm.”
Well, whatever’d happened, it had been in the last three or four decades. Not many ghosts died of natural causes either, or so the experts agreed. That already planted a few suspicions in his mind as they came upon a small structure that bore a sign he couldn’t read. Nonetheless, Osric would have guessed coffee shop at a glance. It appeared that there were signs that transcended species and dimension. The smell filling the air was a bit off, but there was a slender guy with long, lank hair in the corner tuning a guitar-like instrument. Nearby were obvious students. Across the room, as far as they could get, a clearly artsy quintet sat near two older gentlemen of unidentifiable species, at least to him, playing something that looked like chess.
In other words, it looked like every coffee shop he’d ever entered, despite the alien façade.
Given the area and what he gathered of attire in the comparatively low lighting, this was a place popular with priests. Osric spotted a few symbols he knew to be religious back home, though none that were popular among the mundanes. A whole lot of others he didn’t recognize were similarly displayed. There was nothing he would definitively call vestments though. Of course, they were not actively preaching. And many could be . . . whatever student priests were called. Apprentice priests? Good enough.
As the thoughts went through his mind, the spirit-speaker ordered a drink and picked out something recognizable from the food display. He was surprised to receive change for the random bill he gave the cashier. The collection of coins of myriad metals jangled nicely in his hand as they were transferred to a pocket.
All the while, his ghostly guide hovered over his shoulder.
Osric expanded his vision with a thought, realizing that he could see his ghost more through the summoning bond than his art. After the adjustment, he spotted a couple dozen spirits of various sorts around the room. None appeared immediately hostile or interested and all had faint lines binding them to a handful of individuals, fellow spirit-speakers in all likelihood. Probably bound to the people directly or by summons, he decided. There were no fetishes, items containing bound spirits, that he could see at least.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their shared art, Osric decided to avoid those individuals.
Even back home, quite a few spirit-speakers were paranoid, jealous, and ready to steal another’s spirits. These were probably safe since they were socializing with non-practitioners and not, seemingly, fighting, but better safe and all.
A small group by the door seemed a better choice.
There was no sign of spirit activity around them. And they appeared to be both young and human. Both, Osric felt, were good signs. They might not know as much, but he’d always gotten along better with people his own age. Even so, he took a seat nearby, not with them, so he wouldn’t seem to be imposing. The distance also gave him a chance to listen and maybe find a good time to ease into the conversation. One of his mentors had suggested both means, knowing that young spirit-speakers were often not the most social of people. Spirits were often easier to deal with and more predictable.
It only took a few minutes before he heard an opening.
“Sounds similar to Wotan on my home plane,” Osric said, turning to the small group. “Sorry, couldn’t help but overhear.”
“Hmm? Wotan?” he asked, “Well, he’s the wise warrior, the ideal king . . .both knowledgeable and war-like, willing to sacrifice himself for learning to aid his people.” That study of mythology and religions, meant to help deal with spirits, might be useful . . .
“Really?” one asked, “The way I heard things, there was a priest of that god here years ago, Wotan sacrificed himself for his own power.”
“Maybe on one Earth,” Osric conceded, “but not on mine.”
He spent the next half hour engaged in a theological discussion with a collection of novices. Within minutes, the spirit-speaker learned their names and that they represented at least four different faiths or gods, possibly as many as seven. The mix of mortal and divine names was a bit confusing, as was keeping track of who was devoted to whom.
The chatter eventually shifted to discussing other deities and comparing notes. The more shadowy and mysterious faiths were, understandably, of great interest to the novices. Quite a few rumors of strict celibacy and orgies, human sacrifice and extensive purification rituals followed. For his part, Osric ignored the rumors. He’d heard similar about various secret societies at Norwood Academy. Most of those, he figured, were false, of they’d be thrown off campus for violating international law. But they still drew interest, the dreams and nightmares of adolescents cooped up in school and dorms for most of the year.
His attention shifted back to the room.
“The one I’m curious about is Ayleena.” Feeling something more was needed, he added, “I’m doing a survey of gods of the multiverse. The other temples I’ve visited were pretty open. Her’s . . . turned me away rather rudely.”
A chorus of nods followed.
One, Kyren, shrugged, “Not much to say there. The temple came out of nowhere a few years ago as a big player. No one’s allowed in except worshippers.”
“That’s full of it,” another, Talya, contended. “They were around for decades, moving up from the edge of the district. Just because you didn’t notice them before they became powerful . . .”
“. . . They moved to the middle, the good ground, really fast, I hear,” the youngest, Clialh, chimed in. “I heard four, five decades, and that’s practically unheard of here, with so many temples and how old the place is.”
“Oh, they moved fast alright,” Kyren said, with a glare at Talya. “That’s what I meant. Most of the center temples took at least a century to get the prime space, more like two or three centuries.”
“I heard they do animal sacrifice,” Clialh added.
“Pfftt. No way, least not without a permit,” Talya replied, returning Kyren’s glare. “But I hear they perform her ceremonies in the buff.”
“And who’d you hear that from?” a fourth, whom Osric forgot, asked.
“Right . . . pretty hard since none of her priests ever leave the temple and her worshippers keep to themselves.”
“What is she a goddess of? Where does she come from?” Osric tried, to steer the conversation back.
The result was myriad variations of “No idea,” and Osric felt his chances of going home slipping away. Even his quasi-Elf ghost appeared crestfallen at the news.
Osric, though, refused to give up that easily. His home beckoned, but he couldn’t leave the debt unpaid, at least not yet. There may come a point where defeat would have to be conceded due to the limits of his resources. This was not yet that point.
“Who might know,” he asked. “Someone in charge of the Bazaar? Someone who got them the temple building?”
Talya shrugged. “No one in the district gets permission for temples, they just take over an empty one. Not like the shops, where people pay that council. But someone from the council when the temple got here might know, it’s a long shot.”
“Worth a try, I guess. Who was on the council then?”
Another chorus of “No idea” followed. Then Kyren’s voice cut through the rest, “Try old Thyrsin. He’s the oldest priest in the Bazaar, they say. If anyone knows, he probably would. But he’s a bit cracked.”
A few in the crowd rolled their eyes.
“That’s putting it nicely,” Talya opined. “He’s ancient even for a Spirin. Even they think he’s gone crazy and senile . . .”
The spirit-speaker picked up the subtext.
“I’m guessing they’re not exactly, uh, stable, to begin with?”
The group’s chuckle was enough to confirm his guess.
“Alright. Where can I find him,” Osric sighed, resigned to having to take the difficult route.
After a few minutes of sorting out conflicting information and a mini-argument, he had the best guess he thought he’d get. It wasn’t much, but it was a chance. The spirit-speaker gathered up his ghost and left the shop to follow his directions as well as he could.
He guessed the whole walk would take a couple minutes. Or it would have, if he hadn’t taken three wrong turns, had to detour around a stand that blocked the road, and taken a shortcut down the wrong alley. Ultimately, it took most of an hour before Osric stood in front of the taphouse that the old priest was known to frequent. Apparently he no longer performed services and no one even recalled which god he served, including himself according to Talya.
Once they were inside, Osric spotted Thyrsin instantly. He had no idea what the man’s species was supposed to look like, or anything else about them, but it was obvious the priest was ancient. As they drew closer, the spirit-speaker checked the man in every way he knew, even as he waved his ghost companion back. From a few feet away, the priest radiated an indefinable sense of age and experience, much as Osric hated to use the clichéd expression, even in thought. But it was true.
And he appeared sane.
At least he wasn’t babbling to himself or anything.
Osric approached the tall, stooped, blue-tinged old priest and gave his best approximation of a bow. It wouldn’t have passed muster in any court, but Thyrsin didn’t seem to notice. Which was when Osric noted that the other man’s eyes were a milky white. He assumed that wasn’t normal for a Spirin. He doubted it would be, though. His great-uncle’s eyes had looked that way before the healers helped his glaucoma. Strange, Osric thought, that the healers here didn’t fix the Spirin’s sight.
“What do you want,” Thyrsin asked, “or is looking at an old man enough entertainment? I used to try keeping up with the young folks, and their fads, but . . . well, they change too quickly.” He smiled and waved to a seat before Osric could say anything. “Come, sit. Ignore an old man’s bad jokes and tell me what you want.”
The spirit-speaker took the seat, apologizing, “Sorry, Reverend Sir,” one of the Fauns back home spoke like that, “I was not told exactly what to expect . . .”
“You mean that I’m blind,” the priest interrupted. “Pfft. I have been in the Bazaar long enough that sight is no longer needed. The kids they have in temples today have forgotten that those without eyes can still see in their own minds, especially streets they’ve walked for centuries. Enough apologizing. What have you come to me for? No one looks for old Thyrsin unless they want lost information of the Bazaar. Thyrsin’s the oldest living resident, you know. But the Bazaar was old even before Thyrsin arrived and much of its history is lost, better that way, really.”
“Actually, I do need some information about a religious subject, and I was told you’d be the best source . . . I need to know what world the goddess Ayleena comes from.”
“Hmm, tricky. Ayleena, you say? Not many know about her and are willing to talk. Get Thyrsin a beer and maybe his memory will be helped.”
Osric almost objected, he was painfully aware that he’d already used more than half his meager funds. Finding another source would take time, and therefore cost more, though. After a second, he waved down the bartender for a drink. The old man was probably here enough to have a regular.
When the pint arrived, Thyrsin took a sip, savored it and seemed to enjoy the taste for a moment. Then he spoke, his voice barely audible, “So. You want to know where Gylingna’s from, young man?”
“No, sir, I need to know about Ayleena, with an ‘a,’ the goddess.”
“Ayleena . . . Ayleena? Difficult one. Not many outside her priests know that information. But Thyrsin knows, yes he does. She comes from a place called Athelone, or so Thyrsin once heard long ago when she was new to the Bazaar. Most have died or forgotten those days, but not Thyrsin.”
“Thank you, sir,” Osric replied with clear relief. “How do you get to . . . Athelone?”
“Eh? How should Thyrsin know? Is Thyrsin a guide, a navigator, a gatemonger? No, Thyrsin is not. Thyrsin is a priest. Find a seller of portals, a guide to the multiverse for that information, Thyrsin knows it not. Now go, leave Thyrsin to his god and his drink.” He waved a hand as if brushing the spirit-speaker away and Osric felt an odd compulsion to do exactly as the Spirin said.
Several blocks and minutes later, Osric realized the priest was a magician, maybe a telepath. Probably the second, since he could sense most other magics. And the old man was pretty skilled, he hadn’t even noticed the source of the compulsion until its purpose was served.
He needed to find a reliable person who knew his, or her, way around the dimensions. Someone who also carried enchanted items for dimension crossing or portal detection, or who could cast the needed spells, would be a definite bonus. If they were willing to work cheap, or take an i.o.u., that would be even better.
Osric idly wondered if the places here could draw on the funds he had in the bank back home. The logistics would be interesting, since no one he knew had heard of the Bazaar and dimensional magic was, by the few accounts he’d heard, extremely difficult even for those who could do it. His recent experience aside, of course. The Gargoyle, Liam, had said that was probably the Bazaar’s natural, stable, portal to his world. Apparently they followed different rules.
He brought himself back to the money and ‘gatemonger’ question with an effort.
The spirit-speaker belatedly realized he’d been following his ghostly guide without thinking about it. She also seemed to be taking him roughly south and east, as near as he could gauge. The realization made him consciously aware of the odors and sounds that had been causing him to think of home. The reek of brimstone mixed with an indefinable spicy bitterness and the occasional sound of a muffled explosion and constant low bubbling. It was just like being back at Norwood and walking the corridor by the alchemy labs. A faint smile played across his lips even as he felt the familiar light, wary tension return to his muscles, ready to dive in any direction. Presumably the people loudly hawking wares here were at least somewhat experienced professionals and less likely to blow things up than his one time fellow students. Even so, Osric enjoyed the nostalgic feeling.
All too soon, the comfortable sensations gave way to more stately, private shop fronts. After a few blocks, the spirit-speaker realized that the places and smaller crowds belonged to custom enchanters.
Probably made a killing too. If he hadn’t had ethical issues with permanently binding spirits to objects, that would have been a lucrative profession. And one his uncle would have approved of, instead of his service oriented profession. Someone had once jokingly referred to his job as ‘spiritual exterminator’ . . . Osric hadn’t been amused.
The minor curse would go away and the joker’s hair would grow back, eventually.
Soon the enchanters gave way, across a wide road, to places that were much more obviously commercial in nature. In the space of a mile or so, he saw every travel device imaginable from chariots and enchanted horseshoes to winged boots and teleportation wands. Even though the crowd of shoppers picked up, they were the faceless mass that had been pushing through the alchemists and circuses. Osric was able to spot races he was familiar with as well as some truly unearthly in appearance. The latter group he found especially impressive since there were hundreds of races back home, at least according to Frankirk’s Encyclopedia of Magical Races.
By the time the faces registered, his ghost had stopped and made a sweeping gesture.
The spirit-speaker looked around to divine what they were doing there.
A few minutes passed before realization dawned. There were no signs, he had to wait to catch hawking in a language he recognized. Then Osric knew the vendors were all trying to out do each other with claims of dimensional knowledge. As soon as one claimed to map a hundred, another claimed twice as many. In fact, as he listened, he picked out a definite rhythm to the calls and claims, as if the shopkeepers has rehearsed their calls.
Picking a person at random, Osric approached the nearest stall. The thing looked like every mental image he had of a Moroccan bazaar stand. The owner was even wearing a fez, even if the spirit-speaker couldn’t place his race.
The horned, blue-purple shopkeeper gave a toothy grin as he spotted Osric looking his way.
“Ah, honored traveler, what can poor Fezeek interest you in today, good sir?”
Laying it on a bit thick, Osric thought as he said, “Just browsing.” The standard answer he gave store help anywhere, reflexively, was out of his mouth before he knew it. The reply didn’t make much sense though, so he quickly added, “I seek a reliable guide to the dimensions for some travel. But I do not wish just any guide. I must be sure of the guide’s quality.”
The creature bowed, “Of course, honorable sir. Fezeek is the most knowledgeable guide in the Bazaar, you have my word. I am practically a native on thousands of worlds.”
Osric nodded, as if he knew what he was doing. “I do not doubt it, but anyone can make such a claim.”
The ghost nodded her approval, causing the speaker a bit of internal pride, before the shopkeeper hastily said, “Then Fezeek must prove his knowledge. Ask him of any dimension known to man or god.”
“Tell me of Earth, in the 1700-1800 range.”
“Ah, tricky, sir. Fezeek does know something of those Earths, but they are difficult to enter and leave. They are almost closed, but not quite, so travel to them is rare.”
“Ok. Tarsis.” He threw out a name from some mundane book that strangely popped into his head.
“An excellent world for tourists, good sir. Thousands of miles of pristine beaches and crystal clear waters, and no native intelligent or predatory life.”
Interesting. “Hmm. Athelone.”
“Athelone . . . Athelone . . .” Fezeek rummaged through the pile of scrolls on his table and held one up in triumph. “Abadas, Abine . . . Atharis, Athelone! My apologies, sir. If you wish to visit, that will be impossible. Athelone is a closed dimension. It is physically and magically impossible to travel to, though people sometimes leave.”
“Indeed, esteemed traveler, that is what the scroll says.”
“But you haven’t tried yourself,” Osric pressed.
Fezeek’s eyes narrowed, “Of course not, sir. You know what could happen to such a foolish traveler, surely esteemed sir.”
Osric shrugged, “Pretend I don’t.”
The guide’s eyes became mere slits, “I think it is time for you to leave, sir. Fezeek will not be working for you. Nor will any other guide to the dimensions if you seek to enter a closed dimension.”
As the spirit-speaker backed away, Fezeek added, in a hiss, “And don’t try to get free information . . . some are not as kind as Fezeek, including the Council. They do not take kindly to thieves.” The creature turned and grinned at a new customer, the subservient guide mask returned to his face.
For his part, Osric got away from the stand as quickly as he could. He glanced around for a few minutes, hoping no one had noticed the last exchange. His random direction took him deeper into the territory claimed by the dimensional guides.
He passed along a broad street, lined on the left by unsavory looking shops, lost in thought.
Someone was lying, Osric decided as he crossed a fork in the street. A quick glance around showed him stands selling books and related items.
The priests could be misleading him. As a non-worshipper, they’d have motive to lie about their traditions to him. The old priest, Thyrsin, had seemed lucid enough, aside from his disturbing tendency to speak in the third person. But he apparently had a reputation for senility. As for Fezeek . . . well, it wouldn’t be the first time a salesman, mundane or supernatural, had lied to a possible customer. Possibly to cover his own lack of ability or knowledge, in this case.
All of which left things where, exactly, he asked himself. Nearly back at the start. At least, that was the best he could think of.
He took a right and sat at a table outside a food vendor. As he absently ordered a drink and small meal, the spirit-speaker took in the neighborhood. Everything nearby seemed to be involved in book illumination, with a binder or two wedged in. The place he sat at was the only exception aside from a few food carts obviously dragged into the area temporarily. He turned his attention back to the table, surprised to see his ghostly companion sitting at the other seat. It was the first time he’d seen her not standing. Interesting, and she wasn’t sinking through the furniture.
Osric filed that away for another time, when he was home.
Ok, he thought, back to business.
Although he was inclined to distrust salesmen, Fezeek had seemed at least moderately honest and unconcerned. The guide hadn’t gotten suspicious until he’d been grilled about this Athelone place. That line had been a mistake, Osric saw, in hindsight. But, assume Fezeek was at least honest about that dimension. Thyrsin, then. Despite his local reputation, the man had appeared completely in control of his faculties. But, they did say some people could seen totally lucid and still have dementia. His own background in medicine and psychomagic was effectively non-existent. Assume the old man was lucid and truthful, he had no cause to lie.
That left Ayleena’s priest.
Osric had to fight his own biases against organized religion and remind himself to be objective. There was, after all, a chance that the priests were the only sane and honest ones in this case. He doubted that chance, though. After all, they had a reputation for secretiveness and not talking to those who were no part of their congregation. And then there was the ghost’s reaction to consider, biased as that might be. His own reaction had to come into play as well. The fact that he didn’t trust them and that they’d seemed to insist on getting her body, corpse. That, in some spirit-speaker rituals and other magics, could be used to control the spirit, more easily and certainly than other means.
Not that he had a corpse to turn over anyway.
Suddenly, Osric smacked himself in the forehead.
Where better to get what he needed than the source right in front of him? Just because she couldn’t talk, apparently, did not mean she couldn’t communicate as he’d discovered previously. He really had no idea why the obvious hadn’t occurred to him earlier. Probably because it made too much sense and was too obvious. He’d spent too long learning to dig for answers, forgetting that the obvious was sometimes the most important.
“Ok, now that I’ve come to my senses,” he said to the seemingly empty seat, “just nod or shake your head. I’ll try to stick to yes or no things.”
“Are you forbidden from talking about what happened to you? Do you know what needs to be done for you to pass on?
A shake and a shrug. Still better than nothing.
“Ok, but you assume it has to do with the temple and making your story known?” Nod. “Your death was a violent one, right?” Nod. “I’m betting that it was covered up or not well known, right?” Nod. “Ok. Three for three. Was one priest involved? More than one? Many of them? Right.”
Osric leaned back in his chair and signaled for a new drink, having found his empty. He ignored the looks he was getting from the other tables. After a lifetime of talking to spirits that others couldn’t see, he was used to such things.
With only simple answers available, he took a few moments to formulate his next questions. He had a definite suspicion, but that may come from having watched too many mundane movies, he had to admit. Even as lenient as the Bazaar seemed, he had to assume there were some limits, like things that would drive off possible customers, and what he’d thought of would certainly do that. The thing was, it also made logical sense given the information he’d gathered and inferred.
Fine, try it and see . . .
“Did the priests do it on their own? Sorry, clarify . . . did they commit this act in their role as priests?” Nod. Great. Clichéd, but what he expected.
Osric flagged the server who’d been by before. He barely glanced at the human dressed in attire he’d expect at any ren faire.
“Excuse me. Obviously, I’m not from around here. I’m doing a book on the various dimensions and have some questions, two really, if you don’t mind.”
After a second’s hesitation, the waiter shrugged, “If I can answer, sir, I’ll try.”
“Excellent,” Osric tried to force himself to sound excited. “First, is the Bazaar open to the faithful of any religion?”
“I believe so, sir. If you go south, sir, past the musicians and jugglers, you will come to the temples of, I am not sure how many gods, sir.”
“Good, good,” he pretended to make a note in a small book he always carried, “And, on a similar subject, I’ve encountered many faiths in my travels. Some practice . . . less than savory rituals. Are animal or human sacrifices legal here?”
“No sir, I don’t believe so, sir. But the Council’d be the ones to talk to there, sir.”
“And where might I find an interview with the council? Maybe at that tower I see there?” Osric said, indicating the tower at the center of the Bazaar, that rose above the rest of the buildings, his former landmark.
The waiter’s free hand traced a complex pattern in the air, apparently reflexively, as he replied, “No, sir! No one lives in, or goes to, the Spire. They say that messing with the Spire would doom the whole Bazaar. Anyway, the nearest council member’s just across the first major street as you head west, turn right and ask for Master Nadalle at the Prince’s Theater. You can’t miss it, it’s got a portrait of a man with a crown on.”
Pausing only to finish his drink, Osric thanked the young man, gathered up his ghost, and set off to follow his new directions. He fervently hoped this would be the last leg of his journey before going home.
He was only a couple blocks from the theater, the sign was in sight, when some sixth sense, honed by years at Norwood, caused Osric to drop to the ground.
A crack and whoosh of displaced air stirred his hair followed by the smell of ozone and a patter of stone fragments hitting the road.
Osric ducked between two stalls and hurriedly found what cover he could.
Fortunately, he was still on the side of the street with guild halls. A stolen glance seeking his attacker, for so he assumed it was, noted the theaters across the way were all wood. He ducked back just in time to avoid a blinding bolt of energy that slammed into the wall, sending up a cloud of shrapnel.
Damn. He recognized the basic attack from school, and the purple aura from his mother’s magic. He had no counter. His own magic was too slow for combat, unless he bound spirits in advance.
Hopefully the assailant was using a device that might run out of energy.
As he considered, three more bolts of pure magical energy hit the walls around his hiding place.
For a second, Osric thought about sending the ghost to investigate.
They were probably ready for that, though, so she’d be destroyed or captured. There was only one option, then. Retreat.
He carefully made his way down the alley, deeper into the guild section. All the while, the spirit-speaker fervently hoped his attacker didn’t have friends covering the other end of the gap. If they did, well, his only defense was a tiny folding knife he used for collecting herbs.
Halfway down the alley, Osric was pleasantly surprised to find that another alley crossed his.
As he ducked down the new street, he noticed that there was another main street one building to his right. So the guild halls must be built nearly back to back, he thought as he ran. After a few blocks, cutting over could help, he concluded, but there’d probably be others watching the north approach to the theater. At least that’s what he would do, based on watching a few mundane spy movies. Stake out the places he was likely to get help and wait for him.
Maybe more than a couple blocks.
He paused to catch his breath and think a few intersections later.
They’d probably expect him to try the theater again, whoever they were. Or they’d expect him to run. But he knew they were probably staying near his goal. Did they know that he knew that? Did he try that route or play it safe? The sane course would be to flee, find home, and have done with the whole affair.
He eventually sighed.
Ok, ditching the ghost and leaving her to her own devices, or the priests’, wasn’t really an option. It was the sane route, but not the right way.
After mentally marking the street he needed, Osric worked his way north, by randomly changing streets and directions. He hoped to throw off pursuit and give himself some time to think.
Two hours later, he was crouched in a different alley halfway across the Bazaar trying to get some sleep before the long night of summoning and binding he foresaw. It would be necessary to protect himself from whoever’d attacked him, he assumed either the priests of Ayleena or someone they’d hired.
“I was in Chicago, following directions a friend gave me to a shop. I’m new in town and needed some materials that I used up before I moved . . . anyway. I turned down the alley that was supposed to lead to the shop, I must’ve passed it or gotten the wrong alley because next thing I knew, the weather was different. Warmer and sunnier. And then this . . . shaggy, horned Ogre thing was yelling at me, but I know it’s not an Ogre, I took Non-Human Studies at school, two years ago. Then all these people in stalls around here started trying to sell me things,” Osric Kirkwood trailed off, looking at his new companion. He took another pull of the dark, frothy . . . well, beer, in his mug. “Where am I? And how do I get home?”
“You’re at the Bazaar, kid,” the giant of a Gargoyle, wingless but craggy grey replied. “Sounds like you ran into an Anont too, sorry.”
“Um, what’s an Anont? No, wait. More important, what’s the Bazaar?”
“How to describe the Bazaar?” the other man stared at the ceiling, “Saying it is a continuous 24/7 marketplace hardly does it justice. You said you were from Earth, right? Heard of the Goblin Market or Faerie Market?”
Osric shrugged, “Sure, but my Goblin and Elf friends say there’s no such thing.” He was getting the distinct feeling that despite appearances, his ‘guide’ wasn’t from his world . . . and he’d chosen to bother this guy because at least Gargoyles were familiar.
“Well, they’re right and they’re wrong. The Bazaar’s the place that started those stories on every Earth.”
“Okay . . . so how do I get back?”
“Assuming you don’t know any dimensional transport spells? Or have a device to do? You find the gate way you came through to get here.”
Osric rose and turned toward the door, “Okay. I got a bit turned around, but I think I can backtrack . . .”
The Gargoyle just laughed, “Heh. It ain’t that simple, kid. By now, the gate’s moved on. It’ll look the same, but they move around through the Bazaar, so you’ll have to hunt it out or find a magician who can trace it.”
“Great,” Osric muttered, “Thanks . . .”
“Liam, Earth 15743. Good luck, kid.”
Wonder what Earth I left, Osric thought as he left the bar. He glanced over his shoulder, just to see the place again. It still looked like a tiny one room shack. Back home there was, so his teachers had said, dimension magic, both sorcery and spirit-speaking, but he couldn’t remember being in an obviously altered building before. Pretty cool, really. If there were more of them back home, hiding from mundanes would be easier.
He shook his head to clear the wayward thoughts.
Finding a way back was his current goal. Once that happened, he could think about other things like sightseeing. How to locate one of these tracking magicians? Following signs would be easiest, if there had been any signs to follow. It seemed like the place was laid out randomly with no attempt at organization. If what Liam had said was true, he could wander for months and not find what he needed, or he could stumble over it in a second.
As his sorceress mother always said, when in doubt fall back on your skill set. Not having her sorcerous talent or his father’s nose, Osric decided to let his vision slip slightly out of focus. Nature spirits were unlikely, but with the sardine-like press of people, there had to be some deaths in the Bazaar and that meant a strong chance of ghosts floating around at the very least.
Spotting several likely candidates only took a couple seconds. There were a variety of spirits around, including many bound and for sale. Which meant the place had spirit-speakers, Osric concluded, so he should be able to recoup lost offerings and find a good secluded space.
He found an alley that would work well enough in a pinch between two low stone buildings. The far end was blocked by a tent and it was reasonably clean. Probably the best place he’d find without having to pay, he thought as he settled into a cross-legged seat midway down the gap. Osric laid out a few items produced from concealed pockets in his clothing. Like most spirit-speakers, he always carried some essential tools of the trade for emergencies. The task he had in mind would not require anything too tricky or powerful, just a simple summoning and information negotiation. His mother could probably get the information faster, but she was back in Iowa, so no help at the moment.
First, a simple ad hoc ritual to cleanse the alley, something he’d drilled to the point of doing it in his sleep.
Then a simple chant in a dead language, Anglo-Saxon as his choice, repeated several times as he arranged the offerings. Seeking and summoning a specific spirit, instead of any in range, would take time, he realized and repeated the chant.
Osric repeated the chant nearly a score of times before he perceived a response.
A small heat shimmer was visible to the unaided eye about knee high from the ground and just out of reach.
He allowed his vision to shift the subtle amount necessary to see the being. Where anyone lacking the gift would see the effects of heat haze, the spirit-speaker saw a middle aged woman of a race he had never seen before. She was faintly Elven in form, but her translucent coloring was a completely alien blue-grey and she seemed to be clad in something like early Victorian attire. All of which appeared to show his chant as successful, he had summoned a ghost as desired. And she’d responded to the Old English, cementing another theory that language was no barrier in the spirit realm.
“I need to find the gate home,” he said, fighting the urge to consider the theories. “I promise offerings and one favor in return, to the limits of my abilities.”
The spirit-speaker went with a fairly simple and common pact. With a ghost, for information, he felt no need for convoluted counter-trickery. And he wasn’t the type to force his will upon a spirit, they generally seemed to appreciate that fact.
The ghost woman nodded after a moment and pointed down the alley.
Osric hastily gathered his few belongings and followed her drifting form. He decided not to require her name, although he had the means to do so. It should build a rapport. The next time he did a summoning, he could not call her specifically or compel her service. That, his instructors had told him, helped build trust on the spirit’s part, which in turn built loyalty.
He paid little attention to his surroundings, all his focus going to the ghost. She traveled in a straight line, simply moving through obstructions and people that he had to dodge. More than once, Osric lost sight of his guide in the mingled mass of mortals and spirits that his split vision allowed him to access. She moved through one wall and the spirit-speaker had to spend a few minutes searching for her.
After an hour of going roughly the same direction, the ghost abruptly changed and started almost doublebacking down the trail of streets. It took a few minutes before Osric realized they were at a slight angle to the original route, maybe two streets further north, or what he thought of as being north, for lack of a better orientation.
He called a halt to the search, hours later, when he noticed the sun setting. The latter took awhile to set in as the level of lighting barely changed. As the natural light diminished, more shops and stalls were illuminated by torches and magical lights. He even swore he spotted a couple light bulbs amongst a group of tents.
In calling a halt, Osric ordered, “Spirit, find the nearest inn or hotel. Then you may leave until morning, if you choose not to return, there will be no reward offerings.”
He stepped into a ramshackle wooden building a short time later as the ghost drifted off wherever she chose. He hadn’t much hope of a good room, but at least the place had looked affordable.
Once he was through the door, the spirit-speaker had to stop and take in the sight before his shock disappeared.
The floor was black veined white marble. A scattering of pillars held a ceiling two stories above his head. Straight ahead was a staircase that looked like it belonged in a Hollywood movie, with Astaire and Roberts dancing down the steps. Large potted plants and lush seating dotted the cavernous room, broken by gold trimmed red carpets. To his right was a solid gold desk manned by clerks representing at least a half score races.
And the place had looked like a two story dump from outside.
Suddenly uncertain of his ability to pay, Osric went straight to the desk, hoping that would get him out of the spotlight.
Certain he already knew the answer, he asked a rat-man, “You wouldn’t happen to have a room I could get for one night, under forty bucks, would you?”
The, he assumed, wererat tapped something into a keyboard attached to a crystal mirror.
“Hmm . . . well, sir, we do have a few rooms open,” the rat-man said after a moment. “No reservation? Not to worry, so few make them, I’m surprised we even bother asking. It would make things much easier, and it’s not like interdimensional communication and a little planning are that hard, right?”
Osric found himself nodding and apologizing, even though he wasn’t really sure why.
“Alright, sir, if you could just produce one unit of currency,” the clerk said with a few more key taps, “just so we can fix the exchange rate, you see. No billing until you check out, sir.”
After fumbling out a five dollar bill and handing it to the clerk, the spirit-speaker watched him flatten the bill on another, horizontal, mirror. A fist sized crystal ball floated over the bill as if it was reading. Once it stopped, the clerk scanned his mirror quickly and handed back the bill.
“It seems, sir, that we have two rooms that fit your requirements,” he said. “Room 215 goes for a little over fifteen a night, sir. The other is forty even.”
Probably a broom closet, Osric thought, but he selected the cheaper room as being more prudent seeing as he didn’t know how long he’d be staying. In fact, “I’m surprised you take dollars at all,” he mused aloud.
The wererat smiled.
“Aside from gold and silver coins, they are the most common currency we see, sir,” he explained. “It is said that any currency in the multiverse can be used or exchanged at the Bazaar, sir. We need only determine which group of Earths the dollar comes from, for exchange. Ah, here’s the porter, sir, to take you to your room. 215.”
A young, uniformed, Human accepted the key and nodded toward the left.
“Sir? Unless you would prefer the stairs?”
“Huh? No, that’s fine,” Osric followed, distracted by the place, toward a set of lifts. He looked around the wood paneled and gold accented car as it rose soundlessly. The number rose by, he assumed, one in an unfamiliar system, then the doors opened again. Probably a sorcerous or spellwoven device, levitation or some such, he decided as he followed the porter down a corridor.
This one was nowhere near as fancy as the previous floor, but it wasn’t a dump either, the spirit-speaker noted. The carpet was a typically bland hotel pattern of red and green with gold strands. The doors looked reasonably solid and bore slim plaques with numbers. No locks, though, and the clerk hadn’t done anything downstairs, but had given the porter a key. Odd.
That notable waved the key once in front of the door handle, then fiddled with something on the end.
Only after the door was open, into a stuffed closet, as expected, did the young man drop a ring into Osric’s hand.
“Just wear that, sir, and the room door will open for you. It also allows entry to the pool, gym, and restaurant at any hour, day or night, sir.”
Soon after the porter left, Osric decided to splurge a little on room service, eating on the bed while he thought over his situation and plan.
It was a few hours later, when he woke from a restless, yet sound, sleep, that he realized what the door clerk had said, or implied. Their exchange reader told them where currency came from . . . in other words, where he came from in this bazaar’s naming system. They could get him that information. He could go home faster.
The thought kept him awake for the remainder of the night, despite his best efforts to calm down and sleep.
When dawn peeked through the lone window—wonder how that happened with no planet—Osric was already dressed, cleaned, and clutching a dollar bill in his hand as he rushed down the hall and stairs.
Different beings were on duty, so he chose a fellow Human, wanting a bit of normalcy and not recognizing the other species. He slapped the dollar on the counter and asked, “Your scanner can tell me which Earth this came from, right?”
“Not exactly, sir. The scanner is only good to within a hundred dimensions,” the man replied, taking the bill. “But, I can run it, if you like, sir.”
Osric thought for a second. The Gargoyle had said he was from Earth fifteen thousand something . . . which meant . . .
“Yes, please do,” he said, realizing a hundred or so was better than at least sixteen thousand.
The technomagical device repeated its operation from the previous night. Once it stopped, the clerk typed something in—“Switching from exchange rates to dimensional tracking, sir”—and scribbled two numbers on a piece of scrap paper. He handed the slip over with, “That’s the best we can do, I’m afraid, sir.”
“I understand, we have hardware issues back home too,” the spirit-speaker said, reclaiming his dollar and the paper. He glanced at the numbers—1704 to 1802—before folding it and stowing it in his pocket. Just in case his spirit-guide failed today or the gate disappeared completely.
Osric turned from the counter and jumped as he found the spirit in question hanging a few inches behind him.
With a few muttered expletives, he got himself checked out and followed the ghost through to the street.
The sound of a thousand voices hawking wares and haggling mingled with the cries of innumerable animals hit his ears the instant he was past the doorframe. They added to the stench of the same animals and competed with strange spices and foods to threaten an immediate headache. Osric touched the simple pendant that a friend had placed a minor enchantment on years ago, as a gift. It was meant to aid with minor illnesses, he hoped it was up to the task.
A wave set the ghost on its way and the spirit-speaker followed, used to skipping breakfast and eager to find home.
He followed in its wake, focused entirely on keeping the entity in sight as it drifted through people and obstructions. Keeping up required so much attention that he was only dimly aware of his surroundings. Osric’s only interactions were to dodge and weave around what his guide ignored. Fortunately, keeping his vision slightly shifted to see the spirits was one of the first things he had learned, to the point that it was second nature and needed none of his attention. Had it been otherwise, he was sure he’d have lost the ghost in the first three blocks from the hotel.
By the time the sun, or what passed for a sun, has reached its zenith, the young spirit-speaker felt he’d walked the entire place several times over. There was a dull throb beneath his ankles, as if he’d tried to cover every inch of downtown Chicago on foot. Or so he thought, that being the largest city he had any experience with.
Once he smelled, and then spotted, a collection of food stands, Osric called his spirit to a halt.
He approached one that looked like a street vendor’s hot dog cart, as the most familiar.
About four feet away, Osric veered off toward another stand, swearing to himself that something inside the cart had lifted the lid and tried to escape. Whatever it was had looked decidedly rubbery, slimy, and suspiciously tentacle-like.
The other looked safer, even though he couldn’t read the menu’s language. Still, it seemed to be tended by an Alvar and a Svartalfar, people whose food he’d had some experience of. Heavy and not his first choice, but at least he knew it wouldn’t bite back. A few minutes of pidgin sign language haggling told him that, appearances aside, the pair were not what he thought, but that he could part with a few dollars for edible food.
In the meantime, Osric watched his ghostly servant out of the corner of his eye.
It seemed to continually face one direction throughout the whole process.
He hoped that meant the portal was staying in one place and decided to eat on the move, despite his sore feet.
The item on a stick that tasted vaguely like heavily seasoned chicken was gone by the time the ghost stopped. She pointed straight ahead of where they were, a few yards down the street. Osric spotted the, he hoped, portal. It looked like a wooden doorframe with a shimmering, roiling fog-like substance inside.
He dropped to a knee, still watching the portal and being watched by the ghost, to build a small fire out of things from his pockets. He struck a match and lit the offerings, allowing them to burn so the sparks drifted through the ghost. With the portal still in sight, and aware of his promise, Osric waited, his foot tapping and nerves afire, for the spirit to ask its favor.
After a few moments, during which Osric couldn’t help but glance impatiently at the portal, the ghost pointed toward the local north.
The spirit-speaker shook his head.
“What? I don’t understand. Look, I can’t leave the gate now that it’s here.”
The ghost continued to point.
“Oh, come on . . . can’t you just tell me what you want?” That was odd, normally the sentient spirits were chatty as hell, he absently thought.
Yet, the ghost continued to point toward the north.
Osric gave the portal a look of longing for several heartbeats.
Suddenly, he took out the slip that the hotel desk had given him. A pencil appeared from one of his numerous pockets. He scribbled down the time from his watch, guesstimated the distance of the portal from the nearest three shops, and jotted down their names too. It was probably pointless, he felt as he stowed the items, but at least the info might help someone help him, or something. There were other magics and a lot of new knowledge at work here, well beyond what he’d learned at Norwood.
With one last look at the gate, and a sigh, he waved to the ghost, “Lead on, I suppose. You’ve fulfilled your part of the agreement.”
Really, he thought a few blocks later, it was his own fault. He’d been the one who phrased the contract and he should have known to be more careful. Professor Gaskill, back at the academy, would not have failed him for that, but Osric knew he wouldn’t have passed by much either. It was a second year’s mistake, not a graduated, full-fledged spirit-speaker’s. All he could do was blame stress, a little fear, and go with it. Who knew, maybe the Norns were involved in some subtle way . . . even the gods couldn’t fight fate with any hope of success.
They took several twists down side streets after following a main road north for a while. After the tenth or twelfth turn, Osric admitted to himself that he was lost. He figured from the sun-replacement that they’d been moving generally north, but that was about it.
When the ghost finally slowed, the young man noticed that one side seemed to be dominated by archery related stalls, the other by shoemakers of various sorts. He quickly stifled the knee-jerk urge to look around for Brownies. An old mundane story invariably came to mind, ever since they’d covered mundane folklore in one of his elective classes. Interesting stuff, even if most of the stories were way off, but not important now, he thought as the ghost seemed to get her bearings and took off again.
Osric tried asking for information—where they were going, why—a few times before giving up.
Either she couldn’t talk or she wouldn’t.
He wracked his mind for anything he could do to force her to speak. Nothing jumped up. He’d focused on cajoling, treating with, and befriending spirits, not threatening and forcing them. Others preferred those routes as faster. It might be in some ways, he admitted. But, it ultimately failed in the long run and led to paranoid spirit-speakers. Spirits were practically eternal, had long memories, and could obsess about anything, especially revenge.
Hell, probably every third ghost out there stuck around to get revenge for something, even if the target of their vengeance was long dead.
They started moving again once the ghost got her bearings. There seemed to be a more easterly drift, he noticed by sighting the large circular tower to the southeast. Liam the Gargoyle had said it was called the Peak or Spindle or something. Anyway, it was tall and supposed to be the center of the dimension. That made for a convenient landmark he’d ignored the day before.
After a couple more attempts to get the ghost to talk, Osric gave up as a lost cause.
He did notice that they were passing through a loud area, even by Bazaar standards. Cheers and groans resounded off the walls of larger, multistory buildings. In fact, they looked taller and sturdier than any he’d seen yet, some at least. Others seemed to be slapped together from discarded boards. Beneath the yells, Osric caught the occasional mixture of sharp rings and dull thuds that brought memories of Self-Defense 101, interspersed with what could only be animal cries and the, rare, telltale sounds of the flashier magics—sorcery, thaumaturgy, elementalism, spellcraft, maybe some psionics or channeling. Those tended to be much more obvious and showy than the more subtle arts, but also made for better theater.
One bloodcurdling yowl awoke some primal part of the spirit-speaker’s subconscious and propelled him through the neighborhood mere inches behind his flying guide.
A few blocks later, as the structures gave way to what were obviously temples, Osric decided that the area behind him had some sort of circus. That didn’t entirely explain the few people on the street who seemed to be involved in gambling. It did explain the animals and flashy magic. In some ways, the transition to temples was subtle. There were hawkers outside every building filling the air with a cacophony of random languages. The only noticeable differences, at first, were the architecture and the few snatches of intelligible shouts he caught and made sense of.
As the ghost led the way deeper into the Bazaar’s religious section—so he thought of it—the spirit-speaker noticed fewer shouting people and larger, more stately structures. Maybe more successful gods, he thought as he jogged after the ghost. She’d been steadily drifting faster since they’d passed the first temple. If she kept it up, Osric figured he would be running in a block or two.
Finn and Matt stood outside Satyrane Hall a couple hours later, trying to figure out how to get in. It was almost worse than the castle in the woods. The Orders of the Dragon and Corinth held the second and first floors respectively. Neither was happy with the Suns or Finn right now. The Order of the Midnight Sun held the third floor, so that wasn’t too bad. However, the Keepers of the Flame were assigned to the fourth floor, so there was the chance of running into them, which Matt wanted to avoid.
“Bad enough the mother-less racists are allowed on campus,” the Dwarf muttered as they decided on the best stairwell and door.
Finn winced in sympathy. He’d had to sit with Keeper rants in his history class already. After which, they’d tried to accost him and get his signature on a petition to ban non-sorcerers from dorms with sorcerers. He’d had a few choice words for them, fortunately they didn’t know where he lived or that he roomed with a Dwarf.
“Let’s try the door on that side,” he suggested, “Looks like it’s not used much.”
“Can’t just make us invisible,” Matt suggested.
Finn grinned, “My illusions leave a lot to be desired. Besides, that’s at least fourth circle illusion work. I barely rate second circle.”
“You mean sorcerers aren’t all powerful?” the Dwarf asked in mock disbelief. “And here I thought you guys shat spells from birth.”
“No more than Dwarves shite gold bars,” he laughed, “C’mon, let’s get this over with and have a few drinks.”
“Lead on, Mister Superior-Race,” Matt replied with a bow.
Finn chuckled, knowing the Dwarf was just psyching himself up. With luck, they’d not see anyone in the stairwell or could avoid confrontation if they did. After all, not all the Dragons and Corinthians could know what he looked like, and the odds of a Keeper coming down were slim . . . he hoped. It really did look like an unused stair.
They were halfway between the second and third floors when both heard descending footsteps.
Matt tensed, as if to dash to the Suns’ section, until the sorcerer rested a hand on his shoulder. Well, Finn corrected his impression, his friend was less tense at least. They continued a casual pace to the third floor landing and had just opened the door when a mixed trio of Keepers appeared half a flight up the narrow stairwell.
Finn only half realized he was hastily constructing a simple protective spell as the Dwarf went into the corridor.
Fortunately, the three sorcerers passed by with only a few stage whispered comments about being forced to share a dorm with vermin.
That was Matt’s cue to stretch up to his friend’s shoulder and mutter, “It ain’t worth it, Finn, not for their like, not now.”
Finn almost missed the advice as shouts of recognition echoed down the corridor and nearly drowned it out. He glanced over the Dwarf’s head to see Tseng, Leah, and Abelard at the head of a group of Midnight Suns. When he looked back, the Keepers had already descended to the second floor. Doing anything then would just seem late and vindictive. He could put up with the latter, but not if it meant tarnishing Matt’s name. Besides, the others’ good cheer was infectious . . . and the small bottle of fortified dragonwine that somehow appeared in his hand helped things along.
Shortly, he was passing through a crowd with Leah introducing him to a bunch of faces and names that Finn knew he’d forget by morning. They flew by too many and too fast. But they all wanted to congratulate him, and to be congratulated in return. Later, he would swear there were a few younger professors and staff there too.
The rest of the celebration, so far as Finn could tell, consisted of drinking and eating—most of the libations probably swiped in town—along with random chatting, verbally replaying the match, and playing loud music. It seemed like Leah’s prediction about the Dragons’ sleeplessness would come true.
He was asked many times over the next couple hours how he’d beaten the Artificers’ anti-magic, but kept his promise, despite increasing tipsiness.
“This is true,” he found himself saying, hours later. “However, in cases where the subject is truly suffering and requests aid, memory modification, even deletion, must be the ethical route for the healer as it does less harm to the subject.” How, he thought, had he gotten into a serious discussion of the finer points of sorcerous ethics? And wasn’t that Cali Dezee over there? She was a Corinthian, in . . . history, yep. Why was she up here? He’d have to remember to ask Leah if they’d invited the opposition later, maybe.
“Sorry,” he said, “I got distracted.”
The sorcerer he was talking to glanced over and grinned. “Dezee? I understand. Heard her grandmother’s a Nymph, on her father’s side.”
“Hmm? Wouldn’t matter,” another replied. “That’s not how Nymph genetics work, she’d still be one hundred percent Human.”
“Should they be up here,” Finn asked.
A Goblin in the order shrugged, “The Corinthians always come up here when there’s a party . . . or anywhere else on campus. It’s like they’ve got a dowsing sense for them. Doesn’t matter the reason for the party, they’ll be there.”
The first sorcerer came back with, “Hey, did you hear the Keepers are trying to get out of the dorm? They’re trying to get a place in town until the school builds a new dorm for ‘em.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” the Goblin laughed, “They try that every year. Too many of us ‘impure’ types around. The Chancellor’d never go for it.”
Rapidly growing bored, Finn started absently scanning the crowd, looking for anyone he knew. Matt had vanished a ways back, in the company of some fellow Dwarves and at least a couple Goblins. He had no clue where his friend was now. On one hand, he could see why the Keepers avoided the party. The knots of students around the place only lacked Merfolk, Giants, and Centaurs. There was at least one Vampire he knew of, and a couple Werebeasts were over at the bend in the hall showing off with a Changeling. He’d even spotted a couple Elementals earlier, though they were hard to pick out. For a moment, the sorcerer wondered who was dumb enough to think that putting the most and least inclusive Orders in the same dorm was a good idea.
The thought fled, vanished in a puff, when he spotted Leah nearby chatting with a Fawn and a couple Nymphs.
He hastily excused himself and wandered toward the small group.
“It was a good show,” one of the Nymphs was saying. “Not the best, but the Screaming Banshees are always hit or miss.”
“I’d say more miss than hit, Cassi,” the Satyr replied.
Leah playfully punched his shoulder. “We’re not all music snobs, Octavian,” she said with a laugh, adding to Finn, “He’s only really interested in groups no one else has heard of, Finn. Ah . . . Finn, Octavian, Cassi, and her sister Helene.”
Each of the four nodded in turn as Finn noted the other three had donned at least minimalist attire. That was a bit surprising, usually, from what he’d heard, both races were au natural, no nudity taboo.
As if reading his mind, Octavian grinned, “We find you uptight races are more comfortable if we wear something.” He waved to his own baggy pair of cut-off sweatpants and the Nymphs’ matching skirt and loose blouse outfits. “It still feels unnatural, but some profs complained we were distracting their classes . . . not us three specifically.”
“No one complained about culture or race,” Finn started to ask.
Helene interrupted, before he finished the thought, with a shrug and “When in Rome . . .”
The Satyr seemed to find her reaction uproariously funny, Leah gave a small, fleeting smile. For his part, Finn tried to figure it out for a couple seconds, beyond the Satyr’s Roman name. He gave up when Leah slowly shook her head and Cassi rolled her eyes, “Sorry about that, my sister’s sense of humor . . . well . . .”
They all chatted a while longer before the woodland trio wandered off. Once they left, Leah explained, “Helene’s a hamadryad. Her family’s always been tied to trees that come from a particular grove that’s in Rome now. And Octavian . . . you’re in history, you figure it out.”
“Oread, from Colorado. Helene’s not her literal sister.”
“I’d heard Nymphs referred to each other as sister, and Satyrs as brother,” he recalled. “I’ve never gotten a chance to talk to them that long before.”
“Well, Salem’s had a couple over the years,” the sorcerer conceded, “and there are a lot of Nymphs and Satyrs in the area, but they don’t socialize with sorcerers much, and don’t often study witchcraft up there.”
“Hey, um,” she said, glancing nervously at the packed corridor and common area, “You mind coming in here?” She nodded toward an open room.
“Uh,” Finn tried not to look sheepish.
“Nothing like that,” she replied, catching what her offer could imply, “Just to talk about . . . your offer earlier.”
They ducked into the empty room and shut the door, Leah locking it for privacy.
Finn found the dorm room was set up so the residents could get a couch in, among other things. He took one of the hard desk chairs, leaving the decidedly more comfortable looking couch. Curious, he touched his wand to cast a simple spell, just to see if anyone was spying on the room. It was a bit pointless, but the kids at Salem hadn’t been above such things as jokes and it felt good to keep his hand in, so to speak. He stretched out a kink in his back as Leah thankfully took the couch.
“What’s . . . up?” Finn asked as he tried to settle on the hard wood seat.
Leah ran her thumb over a bone ring on her left index finger and looked around the room. “Sorry, sometimes the Keepers try to spy, or our people keep an eye out . . . anyway . . . I told our seniors about your discovery earlier. A couple sorcerers and witches want to talk to you about it, maybe tomorrow, if you’re free.”
“Sure,” he shrugged, “I should be ok around three or four if I get caught up on some things.”
“Cool!” she started to look at the ceiling. “Uh, I thought afterwards, if you’re free, um, I might take you into town for dinner?”
Finn sat in mildly stunned silence for a few seconds, “Like on a date?”
“No, no . . . I kinda feel bad about getting you mixed up in ‘Storm’ and all the attention . . .”
“Death threats from the Dragons,” he interrupted, grinning.
“Anyway,” Leah returned a smile, “I thought I owe you a meal off campus, at the very least.”
“In that case, I accept . . . but it doesn’t necessarily even the books. I expect help on Weapons 101, after what I saw in the woods.”
She grinned, “Based on what I saw, that’ll leave you owing me a debt . . . but deal.”
The next couple hours flew by and introduced Finn to more faces and names than he felt he could recall later. Eventually, he left alone, since he couldn’t find Matt, when he decided sleep would be a good idea. The next day, no, this day, he amended after seeing the time, was shaping up to be a busy Sunday, what with everything . . .
Morning found Finn sitting near the shore of the campus lake. A large steaming mug sat beside him as he paged through a book—Everard’s Magocracy: The Utopian State. He made the occasional scoffing noise as he read through his copy of the eighteenth century book. Everard, he decided, was something of a monster. If he hadn’t been Scottish, and therefore in a different education system, he’d have fit in well with the Keepers. Fortunately, Everard’s idea of a utopian state in which all others were subservient to sorcerers had been discredited long ago. Even so, Finn had to admit as he took a sip of tea and glanced at the lake, they still have a ways to go for true equality. The last was thought as a Kappa walked out of the lake on the far shore. The water Goblin barely glanced around before heading toward the Talus Center. Well, at least the mundanes were more or less safe these days.
As the rest of the campus began to wake up, Finn returned to reading his philosophy homework, absently touching his mug with his wand to keep the contents warm.
Within the hour, he retreated to his room in the face of fellow students enjoying the clear skies. The distractions of conversations and games grew to be too great. Even so, Finn was glad of the distraction provided by his sorcerer friends Hugh and Gillian when they showed up to drag him off to lunch, kicking and screaming, as they laughingly put it. On the way both, especially Hugh, pressed him for details of the previous day and night. Both were second years and non-order students, somewhat curious about the orders, so he fended off questions all the way across campus.
He caught a break when they found their usual table at the dining hall, complete with many mutual friends. Finn looked through the mixed crowd quickly as he set down his tray and grabbed a seat.
“Anyone seen Matt?” he said, belatedly realizing that he hadn’t seen his roommate since about an hour into the party.
Syd, a wererat currently in his man-rat form, replied, “Ran into him, oh, an hour ago. Said something about some ‘guys’ he met last night and going to Duergar for a while.”
Probably the Dwarves and Goblins who’d separated them last night, Finn decided. Duergar had unofficially become the residence of most of the campus’ Dwarves, and several other non-humans.
“Cool. How’s the philo project going?”
The wererat shrugged, “So-so. Discussing ethics with deceased enlightened beings ain’t so glamorous as the mundanes say it is.”
Finn chuckled. His friend and classmate was focusing his study on witchcraft, mostly theoretical from the sound of it. “Good luck.”
The rest of the meal passed with the usual banter and no incidents more serious than a crash of glassware and cutlery from the dish room. Despite his usual tendency to linger at meals, Finn hurriedly finished and leapt from his seat, eager to get back to his room and prepare for his meeting with the Suns’ sorcerers . . . or the much more important dinner afterwards.
“Finn! Wait up!”
The first year sorcery student at Wiht University looked around to see who’d called him. When he spotted Leah, a second year from his biosorcery class, he stopped and grinned.
“Hey . . . what’s up?”
She grinned back, despite being breathless. After a second, she explained, “Remember the ‘Storm the Castle’ match we talked about last week?”
“Two teams, the woods, two wooden castles, no holds barred?”
“Yep,” Leah confirmed, “The chancellor just set the date, next week. The Dragon Order instantly announced its alliance with the Artificers, a bit of a surprise. And the Corinthians, no surprise there. The Midnight Suns have the Eye and Silver Quill.”
“Cool, I’ve been looking forward to seeing a match.”
The other student managed to look a little sheepish.
“Um,” she said, “actually, I was hoping you’d play on our side . . .”
“What? But, I’m not in one of the orders . . . and don’t really want to join one.”
Leah’s smile returned as she stifled a laugh. “That’s ok, Finn. We’re allowed to recruit any students we want. And we need the help . . . the Order of the Eye’s kinda dodgy as allies, and the Quills’re pretty useless except as strategists, once the defenses are up. They’re no match for the Dragons, and the Order of Artificers are good defenders.”
“What about the Order of Corinth?”
“Pfft. Cheerleaders for the Dragons. Useless for the honor bound fools. We could use them, but they always join the Dragons.”
Her own order, he knew, was known for its cunning and sneakiness. Even so, he found himself agreeing to join the Order of the Midnight Sun’s team. Finn instantly swore he’d take his next free time to find every book in the library on “Storm the Castle” to see exactly what he’d gotten himself into.
An hour later, after a disastrous required Weapons 101 course, he was in the Ashurbanipal Library hunting through the history section. Even after a mere month at the school, Finn knew the history part of the library quite well. After all, he had been in the top ten percent of his class at the Salem (Oregon) School of Sorcery and Witchcraft, and planned to double major in history. From what Leah had said the previous week, the sport was fairly simple and unique to W.U.
Finding the part of the history section that dealt with the school was easy. Locating resources that did more than list winning teams, game-by-game Order alliances, and other stats was trickier. In fact, the search was so engrossing and rough that Finn managed to not only miss lunch, but accidentally skipped his Intro Psychosorcery class. At least, he thought later, it was only a class he’d already demonstrated talent for. They were only covering second circle techniques anyway, old hat. But it was required for higher level classes.
He spent the afternoon reading, since he had no other classes.
By dinner, Finn was convinced that he would back out of the match. Both teams had a week to prepare defenses for their wooden castle in the woods. Once the match started, there were no rules except one prohibiting outright murder. Even so, accidental deaths happened. Injuries were common. And the match started on Saturday morning, ending only when one side’s castle was breached or infiltrated and its standard captured. Any magic and weapons allowed on campus were fair game.
That settled it.
He was out.
He was a researcher, a lab sorcerer, not a combat sorcerer. He was better suited for the Silver Quills than the Sun or Dragons. But even the Quills had people who studied warfare, strategy, tactics, and things like that. He was studying sorcery to help burned out sorcerers and, maybe, to get into a bit of reconstructive sorcery.
Maybe that was why Leah wanted him.
Maybe the Suns planned to alter some teammates to sneak into the Dragons’ camp. It could work and would fit the Suns’ reputation. And Leah knew he was pretty good with alteration sorcery.
That must be it. A preparatory role. That’s how he’d be most helpful to the Suns’ team.
The thought kept him going through dinner at the Talus Center dining hall. It even kept most of his friend from noticing anything wrong during the meal. Only as they were walking back to their rooms in Swefan Hall did his roommate, with whom he had hit things off on their first day as rare as that was, ask what was going on.
He glanced down at the Dwarf, who barely came up to his shoulder. Finn smiled a bit as he remembered being surprised by a Dwarf named Matt.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing. Leah just asked if I’d help the Suns in ‘Storm the Castle’ next week.”
Matt lost step, ending up far behind his friend before either noticed.
“Dude! People’ve been killed playing ‘Storm’ . . . They use live blades and magic, you know, Finn.”
“Sure,” the sorcerer shrugged, “I looked it up. But I shouldn’t be in danger, I think she wants me in a prep role.”
“Cool, cool. Wish I was playing,” the Dwarf mused. “Heard the Dragons are recruiting all the brawny types they can get.”
“Way to make me feel better, man.”
Matt chuckled, “What’re friends for?”
The next seven days passed in a haze for Finn. When he wasn’t in class, he was tracking down a suitable cuirass and shield to supplement his qama, as Leah’d suggested a few times, or reviewing his alteration knowledge, considering which spells would be most helpful for infiltration. He was so wrapped up in the pre-match preparation role he imagined that he never truly questioned why Leah had insisted he find a stiff leather cuirass and a good solid shield. When she first brought it up, he simply assumed both would be last ditch protections if the Dragons got past the Suns and the walls. Even Matt’s questioning looks and the knowing grins and advice of upperclassbeings at their usual lunch table didn’t break through on a conscious level.
When his Dwarven roommate dragged him out of bed Saturday morning, Finn couldn’t eat anything, even after being reminded that he could be going on no meals until Monday morning.
All he could think about was what might happen if he screwed up one of his spells.
Finn walked the short distance from the dining hall to the stables, where the Suns’ team was gathering. Most of his friends peeled off to go to the viewing stands along the campus’ north wall. A few stayed with him and a few went toward the Dragons’ team.
He found Leah in the mass of people and asked, “Ok, where are they?”
With barely a pause, she pointed toward the far side of the group. “You’ll be in my group. Ældwin, the Elf over there, will be commanding our wing, he’s a Quill, but a good strategist. We’ll be the left flank, defensive line . . . good, you got a shield and armor. Those’ll go good with your qama.” She kept up a constant stream of chatter, pointing out team leaders and group leaders and covering basic tactics they’d worked out. By the time he had a chance to get in a word edgewise, he found they were in the woods north of the campus and lined up near other groups.
A little bewildered, Finn found he was teamed up with Leah, two other Humans, a Gargoyle, and a Golem. The last was a bit surprising, there were only a couple on campus. The other two Humans wore the Order of the Eye’s symbol and bore short staves, no visible armor. That was interesting. The Gargoyle kept nervously flourishing a scimitar. The Golem stood unmoving and unarmed. And Leah relaxed against a tree in a light weight leather outfit, a pair of short, straight bladed swords in her hands.
Two other groups of the same size stood about ten feet to either side. He noticed a couple Elves, some Goblins—including one with a wicked looking pair of Japanese short swords—some Humans, and even a woman who had to be part-Ogre or Giant covered in gleaming steel plate and effortlessly handling a mace that was about Finn’s own height. He also noticed that Leah was the only obvious member of the Midnight Suns in sight.
She caught him looking and grinned.
“Relax. We’ve got a couple minutes. There’re a few Satyrs, Fauns, and Nymphs with sorcerers scouting the enemy and slowing them,” she said. “Most’ve the Satyrs and Nymphs are with the Corinthians, ‘course, but we got some. The Quills, some of the Eyes, the witches, and strategists are all back in the castle. We just have to keep the Dragons from hitting the castle. Speaking of which . . . Abelard?” she tugged her chin upward. The Gargoyle grinned, spread his wings, and launched straight up to a branch a good fifty feet up. “Eknath, Sarasvati, you two will have the rear for defense.” Both the Eyes nodded. “Simeon, take point.” The Golem moved forward a couple paces. “You and me, Finn, will cover Simeon’s flanks and get off whatever spells we can. I’m counting on you for some emotion control or other psychosorcery. I’m pretty good with movement and illusions, but not there. You can also be medic. If we get a chance to rush the castle, after the first hour, we take it.”
“Uh, Leah . . . I barely passed self-defense at Salem,” Finn whispered when they took their positions, “I’m barely scraping by in it now.”
She clearly stifled a laugh. “That’s why I got the Eyes and recruited Abelard and Simeon. With luck, neither of us will actually fight, we’ll just sow confusion and the other four will do the physical work.”
“Hmm. Alright, but don’t rely on psychosorcery to be perfect,” he said, “It’s more of an art than a science. Someone with a strong enough personality or enough willpower can ignore a lot of it, at least the stuff I’m capable of. Prof. Lederer, now, he could . . .”
Finn didn’t get to complete his thought, though, as a breathless Satyr crashed through the brush in front of them.
“Right . . . behind . . . me,” the scout panted.
Leah waved the Satyr behind their screen and signaled the nearest team in sight.
She’d barely done that when Finn saw why the Satyr’d been unable to slow the Dragons’ assault.
“Oh, hell,” he muttered, then yelled, “They’ve got Ogres!”
The Dragons had either recruited or invited a handful of the large, often sorcery resistant, humanoids to lead their charge. One alone would be a match for their Golem, he thought, as he scrambled to draw his short bladed sword.
He’d almost gotten the blade drawn when a weight knocked him to the ground.
Leah, who’d tackled him, ordered, “Let Simeon and the rest handle the Ogres, focus on staying alive and confusing the rest.” She jumped up and entered the fringes of the fight as the two side units flanked the Dragons.
As he stood up and hid behind his shield, Finn noticed the Gargoyle, Abelard, dive bombing the Ogres’ heads while the rest was a confused morass. The feel of his wand focus, held in his shield hand, brought back his purpose. Stay alive and harass the enemy.
He gathered up a ball of energy in his mind, hastily shaped it, and threw it at the nearest Human he saw.
The other student stared into space for a second before dropping his sword and curling up in a fetal ball with his shield on top.
Heartened, Finn looked for another target.
He had three more opponents on the ground, their fear enhanced, before he had to defend himself.
A solid thud against his shield nearly numbed his arm, and barely blocked an incoming mace.
Finn crouched and tucked as much of his body behind the wood and leather protection as possible. His goblin opponent, wearing Order of Artificers colors, hammered away mercilessly with his glorified club.
In desperation, the sorcerer grasped the first spell that came to mind, one he’d never failed at before.
He threw the energy at his opponent.
And nothing happened.
A part of his mind analyzed the problem while the rest ran around wildly and his arm went completely numb.
Finally, unconscious of his actions, he stabbed around his shield with his qama. He must have gotten lucky, he decided, because the Goblin went down.
Then he spotted the Elf, from their left flank, standing over the Goblin with a pair of short batons. They exchanged a quick nod before the desperate press separated them again.
Suddenly, Leah was at his side yelling, “The main attack’s failed, we can hold these guys! Take Simeon and Abelard . . . get the Dragons’ castle!”
Away from the main part of the match, the woods were silent except for their own footsteps. Finn knew he was blundering through the trees like an elephant, but quickly decided he was ghostly compared to Simeon. Abelard was in better shape, but not much. They’d only gone a few dozen yards when the scout Satyr, in Sun colors, came up from behind.
“The castle’s this way,” he said without introduction. “And shut that Golem up, sorcerer.”
Finn gave a helpless shrug. He’d never learned that kind of sorcery. But he did motion the other two to flank their guide. Hanging back a little gave him a chance to check the Satyr for concealing sorcery or, well, the things he’d thought he’d do for the Suns.
“Here, hold up,” he said at that thought.
Finn sheathed his sword awkwardly before touching the Satyr’s sash. A second or two later, it was the Corinthians’ colors. He moved on to the Gargoyle and glanced back at the scout, “The Dragons have any Gargoyles?” At the Satyr’s nod, Finn released another bit of minor alteration sorcery to paint Abelard’s shoulders in Dragon colors.
Then he considered Simeon.
“How far to the castle?”
“Five, six minutes in a straight line,” the Satyr replied. “Eight to ten my way.”
“Hmm. Ok, not enough for a true alteration, at least not a good one. Let’s go, I’ll take care of him by the time we arrive.”
He’d changed his own clothes to Artificer colors by the time they were a couple minutes from the castle. So far, they’d seen no opposition. But he was able to cloak the Golem in an illusion so he’d look like an Ogre. It wasn’t his best work, even for his illusions, but Finn hoped it would pass a cursory inspection. The inkling of a plan was forming in his mind.
The plan was fully grown and his trio told to follow his lead by the time they saw the castle.
At twenty yards, Finn glanced at his people and started to shake his head.
“Oh, hell no,” he muttered. Simeon looked like a Golem. Either his spell had failed after all or they’d set up a good ward. Still, maybe he could extend the bluff and get them out of it. He reached out for some energy, ready to weave a quick spell to influence the guardians.
“What the . . .?” he muttered again, enough that the trio could hear. “No energy? Hell, they didn’t.”
The Satyr gave him a quizzical look.
“They’ve managed to make a no-magic area . . .” Finn explained in a whisper. “Damn Artificers figured out how to do it.” Supposedly, the ancients had known the secret, but it had died before the fall of Rome. But that would leave them without magical defenses . . . “Satyr, sorry I didn’t get your name, try to bluff us in. Simeon, if that fails, we may need that door opened. Abelard,” Finn shook his head, “do whatever you think is best. I’ve got nothing if my sorcery’s not working.”
He only barely registered the fact that the Satyr was spinning some story about the match nearly being over, a record if it finished soon. Apparently the Dragons and their allies simply needed to crack the Suns’ magical defenses, for which they needed the best Artificers or some such. It was sounding like a good story. And then . . .
“Wait a minute,” Finn barely whispered to himself, “I feel . . . oh ho ho, tricky. Very tricky. That’s a Sun trick, bet the Dragons don’t know about it. Not honorable at all.”
Stifling a grin, he pretended that he could feel the energy, pretended to shape a simple spell, and cast it toward the mock castle.
The sorcerer instantly felt the incredulity of the people on the wall, mingled with hope and excitement.
More importantly, Finn saw the Dragon standard smoothly sinking behind their heads. Certain something was going on, he hastily concocted a spell and sent it on its way. Through the previous link, he felt the opposition’s fascination with his quartet increase exponentially.
If she wanted a diversion, he could provide that for a time.
The standard was gone in seconds.
A clamorous alarm sounded, only to be drowned out by a thunderous gong.
The latter, he knew, was the signal for the end of the match.
As the tremendous BOONG reverberated through the forest, a dozen students clad in the colors of the Order of the Midnight Sun came out of the castle’s gate. Their leader proudly bore the Order of the Dragon’s standard. Finn recognized none of them, but figured out where the Order’s people had been, at least the bulk of them.
The Satyr turned to Finn and actually grinned, “Name’s Tseng, and you three’re invited, as guests of honor, to the celebration party in Satyrane . . . maybe you can tell our no account sorcerers how you broke the magic block. I know ya did, Human, I felt myself losin’ them for a while, and you being a psychosorcerer . . .”
He slapped Finn on the shoulder and ran off to join the already celebrating Midnight Suns.
The sorcerer stood dumbfounded for a few second, unsure what exactly to do. Abelard wandered off toward the campus before Finn clapped the Golem’s shoulder, feeling he should do something. “Let’s head back. I’m sure you’ve got things to do with the rest of the day . . . I know I do,” he said, like find Leah and figure out how he felt about the situation. After all, what did he expect? The Midnight Suns were crafty and duplicitous, that’s what everyone said, at least the nice people. Most just called them lying, conniving, backstabbers, or thieves.
An hour after the match ended, he still hadn’t been able to find Leah, or many other members of her order. There wasn’t even a hint of party preparations or celebration. The first, he expected since the party would probably include illicitly gained stuff, but the second . . . the Suns shared a dorm with both the Dragons and Corinthians, he figured they’d be rubbing a record breaking win in the opponents’ collective face. Especially since the Dragons had apparently stolen the Artificers’ allegiance from the Suns this time, the Artificers and Suns traditionally being allies.
He finally gave up and went to his dorm room, only to be smothered by a Dwarven bear hug. Matt actually managed to lift the Human off the ground before Finn frantically signaled that he needed to breathe.
The Dwarf set him down with a grin. “Congratulations are in order, I believe,
he said. “Saw it all on the wall. Talk is half of Satyrane wants to kill you for breaking their defenses, roomie. Good thing the Suns love you now. But I hear the Quills’re jealous.”
Finn rolled his eyes. “Great. Listen, while you were hearing all this, you didn’t happen to see Leah, did you?”
“No such luck, guman. But I was looking for you, not her,” he said. “How was it, really being out there? And leading the diversion? You didn’t tell me you were doing that. Didn’t trust your roomie?” His grin took away the accusation the question might have.
“Didn’t know about it, myself,” Finn muttered, then louder, “Look, I’d rather not talk about it now. I’ve got some psychosorce homework to get caught up on. Maybe later, ok?”
Matt looked like he was going to press it, but Finn grabbed a book and buried himself in it.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he was upset. Being a distraction wasn’t a bad thing and he had ended up playing a major role in the match’s victory. Leah going off to celebrate with her order, well, they were her second family, that was the point. It wasn’t like they were a couple or anything. She was just an almost friend who he took a class with. Still, a niggling annoyance was there, maybe a feeling that he’d been used. He couldn’t quite place it.
Finn still hadn’t turned a page when someone knocked on the door half an hour later.
The Dwarf cracked it open, muttered something, and looked back in at Finn. In an uncharacteristic show of seriousness, he said, “I’ll be back later . . .” before throwing open the door and slipping into the corridor.
When the door didn’t close, the sorcerer looked up to see Leah waiting to enter. He closed the book and absently waved the petite brunette in. As she glided to Matt’s desk for a chair, she asked, “Coming to the celebration? . . . Oh . . . look, sorry about railroading you earlier. I was excited about the match and everything was moving fast. I didn’t even know the whole strategy, only the fifth years did . . . it was my first ‘Storm the Castle’ with an order.”
“No worries,” he replied, surprised to find he meant it, at least a bit. “Just would’ve been nice to know before the whole life threatening situation stuff.”
She flashed a small grin, “Didn’t think you’d come if you knew we’d be front line.”
He had to chuckle. “No, I probably wouldn’t. I had myself convinced it would be a prep role.”
“How’d you get past the magic block anyway? One of our seniors said they’d known about it for a week and no one could think how.”
Finn laughed outright.
“They won’t be happy . . . there was no block.”
“But, our people said . . .”
“The Artificers out-clevered everyone, probably spread the rumor too,” he explained. “About, maybe, twenty yards out they set up an illusion ward. A good one, I think. That would stop people thinking about illusions. Inside, I don’t know, maybe a step or two, they set up their own mix of illusion and psychsorce. It made anyone inside think they couldn’t touch any energy for sorcery, maybe other magic too.”
“Nice . . . and play on every sorcerer’s secret fear of losing their power,” Leah breathed.
“Exactly. But they left a hole. I’m not sure if they missed it or couldn’t cover it. It’s even more intrinsic than the energy connection, maybe Prof. Moritz would know. They didn’t trick sorcesense. But the shock of losing power would distract anyone . . . until someone in the castle decided to cast a spell, probably to see if Tseng was lying.”
“Which you felt the sorcerer casting?”
Finn nodded, “I think I was already keyed up and somewhat hopeless in the situation already. Maybe. Whatever. They didn’t get the shock they expected. So, either they had re-discovered the ancient magic block that’s eluded the world’s best for centuries and managed to keep that hidden.”
“Or there was no block,” she interrupted.
“Yep. The mundanes have this thing called Occam’s Razor . . . basically the simplest answer is usually best.”
Leah laughed, “You’re right. Our older sorcerers will be just a bit mad that they were outfoxed by Artificers . . . and Dragons no less.”
“I swear to Merlyn and his teacher, Bloise, I won’t tell anyone,” Finn said, trying to be serious, but failing to stifle a grin. “Seriously, I won’t say anything. Let them start whatever rumors they want.”
“Thanks. On behalf of the order, we won’t forget that you helped beat the Dragons and save face,” she replied, before cracking her own grin. “So, you coming tonight? Your roommate can come too, if you want. We plan on making sure the Dragons and Corinthians can’t get any sleep tonight.”
“Hmm, sounds dangerous,” he chuckled, “What’s the old saying? Never wake a sleeping dragon? Let sleeping dragons lie?”
“Doesn’t apply if they’re already awake,” Leah quipped. “Things should start around seven, but most will probably be fashionably late at eight.”
“Split the difference,” Finn decided. “Barring emergencies and angry dragons, I’ll try to be there, and shoot for seven-thirty.”
She bounced up from the chair with another grin. “Great . . . I should probably let you get back to that,” she said, nodding toward his closed book.
“I suppose,” he replied as the door closed, unsure if she heard.
A guard in Dzaren livery, carrying what was probably the count’s coat of arms, stood a little ways off with the two humans from the woods. Airen assumed this was an escort to the town. The distance between castle and settlement wasn’t overly large, but in their place he wouldn’t want scores of unknown people wandering alone, for safety’s sake. Although the foresters’ presence also could argue for concern for the safety of visitors. Having a secure county without creatures like that bastain wandering loose was more important, probably.
His assumption seemed to be correct as a short time later the liveried guard waved a second group over and led the combined dozen out the gates. The newcomers looked as lost and confused as those Airen had come in with. Truth be told, he was confused as well. But questions would have to wait since asking the count’s men, in the count’s home, did not feel like it would lead to a long and rich life. Not the way the count tried to keep people out of the valley. Which made his current treatment all the more confusing. By all rights and the attitude of the wall guards, he ought to be in chains in some dungeon, or facing an executioner. The various gods of luck must all be smiling on him to act against Fortune turning him from his goal.
All told, and his concerns aside, Airen had to admit that the walk toward the town was pleasant. The air was a bit crisp and cooler than he preferred, but the road was well paved and remarkably smooth. The scenery wasn’t much to speak of, fields out to several bowshots from the castle walls—basic defense—and mostly pasture with occasional copses and rocky outcrops after that. There were probably sorcerers keeping the road repaired and the castle fields cleared. Unusual, but if the count had his own towers of sorcery, he clearly had significant influence with, or power over, Dzare’s sorcerers.
Half an hour’s walk brought the troupe to the edge of the town.
Airen’s eyes were instantly assaulted by a riot of colors and clashing building styles. The structures went to mostly two or three floors and seemed to favor native valley stone and pottery tiles, but similarity ended there. It was like architects from innumerable nations had a couple square blocks in which to display all the styles of their cultures. The sight was so awesome that it took a time before Airen registered the noise and the people. Even for one used to the western cities, the sounds of people talking, haggling, shouting, playing, and whatever were almost overwhelming. Focusing on sound and buildings kept his mind from the people. When his control slipped, Airen noted at least a score of races on the streets. Although he knew other races lived in the world, he’d never met a Dharo for Dragon in the flesh and only knew a couple Eldren. Most humans had even less experience, he knew. But, in all his travels and all the history he knew, there were only the four races in the world.
“Through the portals,” the guard said, and Airen realized he must have asked a question. “Same as all of you lot. Steward says he has over five score and ten in the records. Some more might’ve slipped by the foresters and watch, though.”
One of the other humans asked a muted question that Airen missed.
“The town’s a market,” the guard replied with more volume, “They say you can get anything from any world here. Oh, right. You,” he pointed out the cat-person, “aren’t allowed to leave the valley except to your homeworld. The rest of you can leave the valley through the southern pass, with the count’s permission, but you can’t take anything from another world with you.”
Airen hastily hid his confusion. Not allowing the bastain out, he could understand. It would cause panic in the population, maybe sorcerer hunts. The other worlds bit made no sense. The portals were clearly magic, but neither sorcery nor necromancy.
He found they were in a town square when the guard announced he was leaving. “There’s an inn three blocks that way, the Sleeping Dragon, that likes newcomers and changes money at a fair rate.”
After glances, the bastain ran off toward another cat-creature across the square. The two men he’d come in with likewise hurried toward what Airen had thought was a rather handsome human, until the man revealed sharply pointed ears and an unearthly grace. His companions proved to be of the same race moments later, if different in culture, he thought, from the looks.
He found himself alone after a short time.
With no better ideas, Airen turned toward the inn, figuring at least it would be a safe place to sleep. He assumed, of course, that the innkeeper would spy and keep an eye on guests for the count’s coin. Given the point the guard made to make it appear attractive, he distrusted the inn, but decided it should be safe so long as he didn’t forget who pulled the strings.
Over the next couple days, he learned much of the town and almost grew used to the variety of creatures. He discovered that there were dozens of races and thousands of cultures represented in the town, and that the natives believed he had come through a kind of door. By maintaining his hastily made up story, Airen even managed a few conversations on the subject with a sorcerer who did not wear the robes of the Dzaren orders. That alone told him how cut off the valley was from the rest of the kingdom. He knew from previous travels that the king and the three Dzaren orders of sorcery were very mutually supportive. If either knew of a fourth school, they would crush it.
For the time, it was advantageous though, as he sat having tea in a second discussion with Shalesgren, a graduate of the fourth school.
“These portals, doors, then open to . . . other worlds?” Airen asked, picking up their last conversation. “Would that not violate Fwan’s Law of Sorcerous Transport?”
The short, stocky sorcerer nodded, “That is indeed what we believe, given the evidence, including my presence here, since my people are not to be found on this world. As it happens, this world has Harek’s Law of Teleportation, which limits distances traveled by magic. I do not believe this law applies to dimensional travel, or the art that the locals call dragon magic, though. Both are involved in the valley and its peculiar nature.”
Airen grunted and refilled his tea cup. He wasn’t surprised about Fwan, having made the name up.
“There may be something similar where I come from, Elder Sorcery. But that brings another question . . . or two: how and why?”
Shalesgren shrugged. “We are unable to say. The count only allows the Grey Robes to access the dragon-god’s temple. My master once said this has been true for centuries. That is something they do not discuss with those of us from the Shadow School, even though they treat us better than the other two towers do.”
“No one can control the doors?”
“Not the random, natural ones, no. Although I suspect the Grey Robes know something, as they have not visited the temple in decades. But there are many spells and devices known to the people of this valley, and some of this world’s master sorcerers, that can allow one to willfully open a door.”
“Which is what the guard meant about not taking anything past the wall?”
“Something like. There are those whose profession involves trading goods across the multiverse. . . . Unfortunately, I must see to some students. A friend at the school sends them to see what professionals do outside the school’s halls.”
After leaving the gregarious little man’s home-business, Airen found himself on the lakeshore. Ostensibly, he was looking off toward the Black Tower of Sorcery, appearing as an obsidian pillar in the lake, at the distance. He actually spent his time studying the small fishing boats on the lake. Each had only one or three men and carefully avoided the tower, he noticed. The explorer idly wondered if he recalled enough to handle a small craft on the sheltered and generally calm water, possibly with a little sorcerous nudge. Or, maybe not. None of the boats had sails, which limited what his minimal study could do.
Crossing the lake should be possible in a matter of hours, he thought as he slipped the mooring line of a small rowboat that night. Even with avoiding the tower and accounting for rusty skills, a straight northeast shot should end near one of the valley’s river outlets. Probably a good place to stash a stolen boat. And then it was a short hike to the temple. Assuming any guards and wards the count and Grey Robes had in place could be avoided.
By sitting around a tavern near the docks, he had learned that the count never patrolled the lake and that the water only contained non-threatening fish. Nothing that couldn’t swim the rivers, they’d said. Except near the Black Tower. The rumors there said that the Black Robes valued their privacy and conducted strange sorcerous experiments. Sometimes, an old woman had said, a creature got loose and briefly terrorized the lake and fisherfolk until the sorcerers and count’s men dealt with it. But that, she assured him, only happened once in a moon cycle at most.
Despite assurances, Airen rowed a wide berth around the tower, heading a bit out of his way to do so.
He kept to the open water, rather than shooting across and following the eastern shore. First, it was faster, if a bit choppy. Second, there were miniscule points of light that he assumed were forester campsites. They might be far enough from shore to miss the sound of his oars, but best not to tempt fate.
The boat scraped its bow against shore a couple hours before dawn. Airen ignored his aching shoulders and lower back to drag the craft up on the southern bank of the river. He didn’t bother with the handspan of water in the bottom, quite proud that he’d only gotten that much aboard given the swells and his inexpert rowing.
A minor spell temporarily relieved his aching muscles, until dawn at least, before he crossed the river.
It took a bit more effort, but he hoped the boat would lead any pursuit to believing he’d gone south instead of north.
A short while later, Airen crouched behind a rock that thrust up from the valley floor. His position was close enough to the temple that he could see it well and that the natives hadn’t cleared the field for cultivation. And far enough that the dragons had not bothered clearing the boulders and outcroppings either. Any closer and he would be out of cover and easily visible to anyone there. After an hour’s watch, he hadn’t seen anyone outside, inside was another story. The old dragon-gods had not been big on windows in their temples. Which this looked, to his experienced eye, to be a perfect example of. It was in better condition than many, but that was probably due to the Grey Robes.
He tried a very basic detection spell that anyone in Theris, or most of the civilized lands, knew. The explorer was instantly rewarded by seeing the pale blue aura of sorcery that indicated active spells. However, he had trouble picking out the sorcery because of the overwhelming red glare of dragon magic coming from the temple itself. The burning scarlet nimbus was almost too much for his eyes, but he could tolerate the angry glare for a time. He ended the spell anyway, for fear that the dragon magic aura would cause him to miss a trap set by the Grey Robes. Instead, Airen drew a dagger from his belt. The steel pommel was enchanted to detect only sorcery, unlike the spell he’d used. That had been developed by the early sorcerers fighting the dragon-gods, but most people didn’t encounter dragon magic these days. He held the dagger out, pommel up, and crept out from cover. In a way, the explorer thought, it was like being blind, but much more dangerous. He had to rely on the device, even though it only gave general, vague, information. He could assume protection against teleporting and those dimensional portals, if the last was possible, but those could be ignored.
Injury probably wasn’t a problem either. The Grey Robes would not, he decided, want to risk damaging the site. Alarms and capture traps were more likely. And those had to be placed on relatively small areas, so avoiding likely places should keep him safe until he reached the walls. The temple was large enough to reach the area limit of most of the alarm and trap spells he knew of, most well beyond his own ability to cast, at least on that scale. But smaller spells were easier.
The most obvious place to set defenses was on the road from town, and the one that met it from the lake. Since he’d gone overland, those were ignored easily enough. The rest should be common sense . . . like go through the low lying marshy ground rather than circling it as someone who wanted to stay clean and dry, like a person in robes, would do.
Airen reached the temple without major incident and unharmed. His clothes would dry out, eventually. As he’d guessed, the dagger pommel was glowing as bright as he’d ever seen it. Any closer and he figured it would be too bright to look at. So thinking, he sheathed the weapon and tried the basic detection spell again, hoping that he might see distinctions up close.
From a few feet away, the temple was surrounded by a purple-red aura. Airen thought back to his year of apprenticeship before slipping off his pack and consulting the only book he ever carried. Obviously, the dragon magic was more powerful than the Grey Robes’ sorcery, which was pretty powerful itself. The pattern he’d seen briefly before cutting off the spell to save his sight was intriguing and, by the gods, confusing. In well over a decade of treasure recovery and exploration, he’d come across more kinds of protective sorcery and necromancy than he cared to count as well as a variety of defensive dragon magics.
This pattern of energy was completely new, maybe an unusual interaction of Dzaren sorcery with ancient dragon spells, maybe the influence of the dimensional holes, which were also new to him and only barely grasped, perhaps both. He checked the book, one part diary and one part catalog, to see if any part of the pattern was recognizable or even close to the oddities he’d seen over the years.
It only took a few score heartbeats to discover that his initial assessment was correct. According to the notes and accounts he had written over the years, such a pattern was new, although it had elements of some familiar spells.
Therefore, Airen decided as he stowed the book, the options were limited. Admitting failure and giving up was not an option. Neither was staying out in the open beside the temple while he figured out a way past the spells. For one thing, the foresters or Grey Robes might visit. And the dragons had done a good job clearing the area of cover, something the locals maintained. Add that it was only a matter of time before the boat was reported and found. So, there would probably be county soldiers, foresters, and sorcerers from the three major schools seeking him out. The fact that they wouldn’t know who had stolen the boat would only slow the hunt down, but the lake wasn’t the largest in the kingdom, or world. Perhaps a day would be bought, if no one stumbled over it before searches started.
Back to town immediately wasn’t a smart option either.
His mind made up, Airen shouldered his pack and set off due north toward the valley wall.
On the way, he tried to imprint the pattern in his mind. At the first available chance, he could draw it in the book for later study. With any luck, that study could happen at the Shadow School. Airen hoped, as he hiked and formulated a plan, that the shadow sorcerers would take him in. With Shalesgren to vouch for him, they might even accept a story about hiking part of the valley because he’d felt stifled or overwhelmed in the town. The right story might even grant protection from the count. And, if all else failed, he could always ask to join the order. Such groups always protected their own, at least the legal ones did.
Airen covered most of the distance before hailing the small group of men he spotted pacing the top. One looked down while, he was sure, the others took aim with bows or maybe spells.
“Who are you, stranger? And what business have you with our valley?” the guard called.
“Most call me Airen,” he replied, “I come to offer my sword to the count, for the . . . conflict Mintend is sure to start.”
“Our lord has no need of more swords, mercenary or otherwise, nor interest in the wars of outsiders. Begone.”
If he truly had no interest in the coming war, the count probably didn’t care for geography. However, “I also bear news, stories, and tales from Theris and Mintend, only days old and more from Imalzair, fresh this past month. Surely that is worthy of at least a day and a night in the guardhouse?”
But the guards were unyielding, “We have no desire for such news, stranger. I say again, begone unless you have the skill and wish to catch arrows.”
“As you say, good sir,” Airen replied, his eyes flicking around quickly and gauging the area. “I’ll be on my way then.”
He turned the nag and moved back up the narrow road, conscious of the arrows and eyes on his back until he passed the turn that led to the main road. Even then, he continued onto the main road in the assumption that the count had scouts and spells in place to warn of intruders. That did not stop his eyes from roaming. If there were the sentries he expected, and there would have to be more than sorcery or necromancy, he had not seen them coming in or leaving. And they would have to get into their positions somehow. Therefore, either the count was using fully trained sorcerers as scouts, an utter waste in his mind, or there were game trails about that just might bypass the wall.
Back at the main road, Airen took everything off the nag and arranged the gear for himself to carry. He then turned the horse toward the inn and got her on her way. It was a fairly short distance, so he figured she stood a good chance of making it to shelter. Maybe better than his own chances.
After shouldering his still heavy pack, the explorer struck out away from both roads in an attempt to find the paths he was sure existed. Rather than dissuading him, the guards and wall actually reinforced Airen’s determination. They meant there was something to hide, which meant there was something of value. Especially if the count could ignore his king, even a weak and aged king. Realistically, he had to reassess his plans given the obstacles, but that had been true from the moment he’d heard that the valley was still inhabited. Dragons, for instance, were now out of the question as he had no intention of starting a war.
In the belief that this count would employ magic to protect his valley and disguise its sentries, Airen shaped first a simple spell to detect sorcery. He also activated the item that detected evidence of necromancy. With both, he spent the next couple hours searching the slopes for the telltale signs of illusions or spirits.
Only as the sun began to set did he get lucky.
There appeared a faint green aura a few man heights from him and toward the northeast. Airen spoke a word to return his spirit detector to its inert state before seeking a safe method of ascending toward the illusory protection. The spot looked, from his distance, like a small rockslide had occurred years ago. But, the whole pile glowed with what he had come to know as the color of illusions. Although it could be a false sign, and therefore a trap for the unwary, he hoped otherwise.
A time later, after he managed to climb the slope, Airen found his meager sorcerous skills unable to dispel the illusion. However, he felt no resistance as he laid a hand against the false stones. He pressed through, slowly walking into the illusion and taking care for what might be beyond. At that thought, halfway into the supposed rubble, he drew his sword as a precaution.
As his blade met no resistance, but his forehead brushed stone, he crouched and continued awkwardly forward.
And found himself in a shallow, low overhang of rock.
It was just deep enough to protect an occupant from most storms and other weather, Airen decided. And barely large enough for a pallet, fire, and a couple days of provisions. In fact, he saw a blackened circle on the floor that indicated long term use as a fire site. Cold enough that he knew it hadn’t been used in weeks, maybe longer. The goddess smiled on him today, it seemed. He’d had a, tempestuous, relationship with Eiliro, Lady of Fortune, for most of his life and knew better than to trust to her favor.
Sheathing his sword, he noticed a small tunnel, little more than a crawl space. A person couldn’t use it with a pack unless the gear was pushed ahead or dragged behind. But, the sides were perfectly smoothed, whether polished by considerable usage or made by sorcery mattered little at the moment.
He shrugged off his pack and rigged a length of rope into a dragging strap. With the other end tied to his ankle, Airen began to crawl through the low tunnel in the assumption that its unnatural appearance meant it led toward the valley. After a few claustrophobic hours, he swore he felt a breath of air entering the passage. He ignored the minor bruises acquired from banging his elbows against the sides and pressed onward. As he wiggled around a bend, Airen detected a faint lightening of the darkness ahead, from inky black toward a deep blue-black. And the brush of moving air increased on his face.
Since he was unaware of what kind of reception he might face, or even where he’d come out, he paused for a time to listen.
Hearing nothing out of the ordinary, he pulled himself out of the tunnel and found sparse grass beneath his hands. Airen rose to stand in a rocky glade that would be better described as a pocket in the mountains. As he stretched and massaged out the kinks in his cramped muscles, he noted a game trail that seemed to lead due north.
Judging by what he could recall of the terrain, he guessed his position to be slightly further east and north than the wall.
Once he’d stretched sufficiently, or close enough given his situation, Airen set out along the trail. As the sun had set, he went carefully, wary of both animals along the path and the fact that only star and moonlight illuminated his path. He didn’t dare create his own light for fear of alerting other watchers that he assumed were in the mountains. At the very least someone on the wall might see it.
Thus, the moon was beginning to descend by the time he neared the trail’s end. The same distance could be covered in less than half the time by day, he thought, before he noticed where he was.
Ahead lay an open valley, a deeper darkness beneath the sky. Almost directly north were the lights of a town. To the right and a little closer, a whitewashed castle rose above the valley floor, with its own illumination. Toward the left, as well as beyond the castle to the right, other lights indicated further structures, likely towers from the pattern. And the lights of a third tower beyond the town reflected off water that must be a lake. Perhaps more importantly, Airen found that his sense of distance was confused, or had been. Lights nearby showed the wall across the pass only an easy walk to his left.
Regardless, he did not stay around long enough to get a good look at it.
Although it was difficult to judge in the darkness, he decided that the town could be reached by dawn. But that raised the question of whether he even wanted to reach the town. Based on his map, the Draegis site was much deeper into the valley, beyond the lake. And he’d stand out like a Dharo on dragonback in the isolated valley. These people surely did not have many, if any, visitors. Presumably that meant they knew each other well, maybe even enough to tell a stranger by sight in spite of the town’s size. All of which said he’d be lucky to see sunset before the count’s men had him in chains or worse.
Staying at the trail mouth was hardly an option either. A new watcher or patrol could come by at any time, although Airen very much doubted they would by night.
He slid down the remains to the path to the valley floor and struck out east. His map, from what he remembered, showed that being the longer way around the lake. The lights in the valley showed it to the be least populated way, though. With luck, he could get well beyond the castle and towers before turning north and west toward his goal. So far, his luck had held out well on this venture.
Morning found Airen camped in a small copse near the valley wall.
He looked over what he could see of the valley while having his cold breakfast. A tall white tower obscured his view of the lake tower and the imposing whitewashed and muraled walls of the castle blocked the other tower he’d seen in the night. Probably sorcery towers, he decided, following Dzare’s division of the art, although so far as he was aware there was only one tower for each order in the kingdom. Still, the closest had the look of belonging to the White Order. Unfortunately, the castle also blocked most of the town from his sight and a wood was between his position and the Draegis site. But, he heard the sound of a river nearby, so at least there was fresh water.
By midday, Airen had made good time due northeast and was ready to arc back north. In the process, he’d crossed two rivers and had seen no one and nothing larger than a few birds and rabbits. The town’s fields, he guessed, were probably closer to the lake and the walled pass. He’d expected some hunters, but even so, there probably weren’t many with the valley’s size.
Then again, he was no expert on valleys. As he looked east, it seemed that much of the valley was still untamed.
Once his break ended, Airen started north, with a slight western angle. Even a good hike from the town and castle, he was wary. There were still a few fields out this way and he didn’t know the state of his goal. If it had been a temple as he thought, he could find a vibrant and heavily protected remnant of the old Draegis faith. Or it could be ruins, whether it had been a temple or not. That could mean the difference between alert guards and grazing goats.
An hour later, he entered the woods and started trying to find his own path.
Minimal brush helped his passage and Airen felt he’d been making good time when he noticed that the sounds of the wood vanished. Only once they were gone did he register the birdsong and other small noises.
He found himself taking a knee and looking around with a hand ready to draw his blade.
Several heartbeats passed before he picked out a faint heat shimmer a few dozen strides ahead.
Something . . . “Gods,” he swore something was in the shimmering air, something solid.
A moment later, the disturbance was gone.
But it had left something that walked on two legs behind.
The being was slender and covered in fur, or so it seemed. It was about half his height and suddenly crouched, looking around. Airen realized he had unconsciously drawn his sword. The sound of steel clearing the scabbard had likely startled the creature. He hastily lowered the weapon’s angle to avoid catching stray light.
Not that it mattered.
Even from the distance, Airen heard the faint growl as the creature spotted him.
An instant later, it was gone, running like a man, but not before he saw the long tail, thick and powerful like those of the mountain cats. Or the jungle cats of the south.
He remained motionless and bewildered long enough that both leg and arm muscles shook in protest.
Then Airen sat on the ground, his sword across his knees, and tried to make sense of what he’d seen. Despite being well traveled, he had never heard of such a creature. Even the experiments of the sorcerers in Traell and the tales of dragon magic did not account for such a being. And the means by which it arrived was unlike any magic he’d ever seen or heard of whether sorcery, spellcraft, necromancy, or dragon spell. He knew from experience that sorcerers of a certain rank, beyond his own, could travel by their art. But, they always vanished and reappeared instantly, with a faintest of popping noises. The other magics, so he had heard, were incapable of such acts.
Only some sense of the elongated shadows brought him out of his thoughts. It had become too late to travel further, yet he’d only covered half the distance he had intended since midday. Knowing nothing good would come of stumbling through an unfamiliar woods in the dark, especially one apparently home to strange creatures, Airen set up a camp. He even risked a small fire after building a low wall of stones and logs to shield it on three sides. The woods and distance, he decided, being sufficient to keep it hidden as well.
Before dawn, Airen rose and broke down his camp. He was on his way by the time the first rays of light filtered down through the leaves.
Even with the early start, he was just out of sight of his camp when he was hailed.
“You there! Halt in the name of Count Aldrick, lord sovereign of this valley!”
The voice came from behind, but he noticed three men practically materializing from the trees around him. Each bore a short, powerful bow and wore a cloak that, he guessed, helped them conceal themselves in the trees. The bows kept his hands from even unconsciously going to his sword. One archer, Airen thought, he could probably escape. Four, in their own territory . . . they were speaking Dzaren, so that seemed a fair assumption.
All three bowmen lowered their points as he turned to face the speaker.
They were all of a type, same build and stance.
Thinking fast, Airen said, in Traellen, “My apologies to your lord, I knew not that this land was owned.”
To his surprise, the words came out in Dzaren. Or both languages.
None of the woodsmen seemed surprised. In fact, their leader replied, “Your words will be rendered in our own tongue, traveler. It is part of the valley’s magic. We are his lordship’s foresters, charged with bringing those like yourself caught by the disturbance to the castle or town, depending on your intentions . . .”
Confused, it was easy for Airen to appear bewildered. He decided to go with that, “There are strange creatures here, sir . . . I saw a man-cat thing yesterday.”
“The bastain? We found him near nightfall. He’s safe, just frightened and shocked. And on his way to the castle.”
Airen kept to the far southern language since it seemed the men had not heard it. Best, he thought, not to appear Dzaren, Mintendish, or Therisian when they seemed well disposed and to think he’d crossed some ‘disturbance’ as they put it.
“Bastain? I’ve not heard of such a race,” he said, “Is it some magical creation?”
“Not that I know,” the leader replied, “But, his lordship will answer all your questions, or will assign someone to. Our duty is merely to get you to the castle.”
“That won’t be necessary, the town sounds like it will do . . . if I can find lodging. I would not desire to impose on his lordship’s time or hospitality, having no claims to noble birth or importance myself.”
The forester stood his ground and shook his head. “Count Aldrick’s steward will make that decision, his lordship wishes every newcomer to be met by the castle first, and his homeland to be described. It is a tradition begun by his lordship’s great-grandsire, to help those who stumble into our humble valley by chance.”
Gods save me from the conscience of nobles, Airen told himself. And new mysteries. Aloud, he simply and submissively answered, “Then, good sirs, it seems the choice is made as I would not wish to offend my gracious host and no man can stand before tradition. Better to try stopping a landslide with a twig, as we say in my homeland.” At least in the several hour walk, he could flesh out the made up land and secure his story.
Or so he thought.
When they reached the foresters’ camp a short time later, all thoughts of having several hours to plan vanished.
Among the dozen other men and women in the same outfits as the foresters were three others sitting around a small campfire. One was the cat creature, bastain. The other two looked at least human so far as he could tell. But they were not the problem. A few feet away was a young woman, about his own age, clad in grey robes and bearing a staff almost as tall as she was.
Airen instantly recognized the woman as a member of the Dzaren Grey Order, and therefore a fully trained sorcerer. For reasons he’d never understood, the kingdom divided its sorcerers into white, grey, and black orders, rather than the guilds and schools of other nations. Whatever. She could only be there for three reasons: truthseeking, defense, or transportation. An apprentice could handle most situations involving the first two, no need to waste the time of a fully trained sorcerer for those in a protected valley.
His fears were realized when a forester turned to the sorcerer, saying, “That’s the last morning party. These four can go out with a pair of escorts.”
The woman nodded and a few moments later a vertical circle of green light appeared in the air.
Recognizing a transport portal from his apprentice days, Airen did not require her “just step into the circle, it is perfectly safe,” but tried to mimic the bastain’s concern as a forester stepped through. The other two captive humans followed after the sorcerer gave them encouraging nods. A second forester, his hand on the cat-creature’s shoulder, waved Airen ahead, apparently wanting to guide the creature through personally.
With a last look in the direction of the temple, so far off and out of sight, he stepped into the portal.
Instantly, the familiar twisting sensation that he so detested from his student days hit his entire person, body and mind.
Three steps later, at least that amount of time, Airen braced himself against the disorientation he knew would come. Once the brief wave of instability passed, he saw that he was just outside the gates of the whitewashed and muraled castle. Only the fact that he’d instinctively sidestepped upon exiting kept him from being run over by the last pair. When he looked behind, the portal was gone.
Both guards escorted the travelers, prisoners, through the massive iron bound gates. Airen, like the others, looked at the stonework as they passed beneath the murderholes in the ceiling. He judged the wall to be about twenty paces thick, clearly built to last and even withstand sorcerous attack. Most of the city walls he’d known in Theris were only half as wide.
They were brought before an aging man at a camp table in the middle of a busy, paved courtyard. Airen could barely hear, and could not understand, the names that the other humans gave in reply to the man’s questions. Evidently this was the steward and he was satisfied by all their responses as he waved them off. Then it was Airen’s turn.
“Name and homeland?”
“Airen . . . uh, Nihtland,” he replied in Traellen, hoping it was still exotic enough.
“Interesting, that is not in our records . . . what races are in Nihtland?”
“Humans,” obviously, he thought, then, “and Dragons.” Play it safe, no outlandish claims like Dharo in the streets.
The steward made more notes and nodded, “I see. That will be all, Airen of Nihtland. Please do not attempt to return to your homeland for at least a week. His lordship may require additional information, as this land is unknown to us.”
“And until then?”
“There are money changers in the town as well as plenty of rooms for rent. Should you require paid work, there is enough to be had in town.”
“That’s all? You’re just turning me out?” Airen let his own disbelief at his good fortune masquerade as affront to shore up his disguise.
“You and a hundred others every couple days,” the steward replied, “Now move along before the next group comes in.”
The place was odd. That was all there was to it.
Once again, he found himself standing in an alley across from the window that had been taunting him for days. Every evening for the past week, Airen has been in the alley. Initially, he’d planned to case the second floor home. He knew that the item he sought was inside. He even had a plan for evading the downstairs shop and the dog he’d seen inside. A few devices on his person and a couple simple spells would handle the wards and charms placed on the shop, since they were the basic ones every merchant and craftsman in Baronsport had been using for the last four decades. They’d been used so often that they were meaningless to even the most inexperienced thief in the kingdom, much less the city. In fact, Airen was completely prepared to sneak in, get what he needed, and leave without a trace.
But there was that godsdamned second floor.
His own knowledge of the sorcerous arts was better than average. Not adept or master level, but he’d had a couple more years of study than most. Even so, he could detect no sign of sorcerous protection on that floor. In a kingdom where virtually everyone knew at least some basic spells, Airen found this odd, unsettling, and very disturbing. Two nights ago, he’d even tried to see if there was any necromantic residue, even though the art had been outlawed for over a century. He had an old enchanted object that searched for evidence of the spirit-speakers, their art being entirely unlike sorcery. Still nothing. The only thing he hadn’t checked was spellcrafting, but since only the Dharo practiced that thaumaturgic art and none had been seen in the kingdom for a couple centuries, it seemed unlikely.
It was like the owner was begging to be robbed. Or taunting thieves.
Or maybe he figured that sorcerous wards and charms were pointless in a city where even the beggars knew spells to start fires and detect sorcery at the very least. Maybe he relied on mechanical alarms, locks, and traps. It was, Airen admitted, entirely possible that an average thief used to sorcerous precautions might forget about trapped locks and simple alarms. Fortunately, he was no average thief. In fact, he wasn’t normally a thief at all, despite the set of skills he’d picked up over the years.
Perhaps it was safe to proceed and acquire what he needed.
It was entirely possible that the man had no idea what it was that he owned. Or that he wanted to get rid of it.
No, the last couldn’t be true, otherwise he would have sold it long ago.
Unless it carried a curse.
Many items from the first Draegian dynasties were said to carry a variety of curses. The old spellcrafters and early sorcerers had been quite fond of such protection. His hand clenched instinctively as the minor curse that had left it petrified for a month came to mind. It had been several years, but Airen still hadn’t forgotten the first tomb of the Draegis Empire that he had ever explored. And that had been a fairly young burial site, perhaps from the last century of the empire’s existence. In spite of the risk, the work had been worthwhile, and the royal authorities didn’t ask where ancient artifacts or gold came from.
He returned to the present as the window’s light went out. Since it hadn’t flickered in several nights, Airen guessed that the owner knew simple light spells or had a cheap light globe. So, he wasn’t unfamiliar with basic sorcery. A few dozen heartbeats later, he watched as a man exited the first floor shop, locked up, and walked down the street. Probably to Marec’s. For the last week, he had gone to the tavern every night for well over an hour of drinking in a corner, sometimes chatting with various people. More than enough time for a prepared thief to sneak in, find a certain item, and leave unseen, barring any surprises.
To avoid the first floor, Airen scaled the wall beside him as soon as the owner was out of sight. That part of his plan was easy in this neighborhood, most of the buildings being old and in myriad states of repair. He’d specifically chosen this building because of the height, even though it was diagonal from his target. One crossbow shot and some careful knotwork later and he had a bridge to the second floor, bypassing the wards and dog. It might not be a guild recommended method among the thieves, but he hoped any of the few watchmen who came by would assume it was a clothesline.
He crossed the space, roughly equal to the height of two men, suspended from the line, a skill he’d picked up years ago. At the other end, Airen scrambled onto the roof and hung over the edge to examine his window of choice. Unhooking the simple hinge lock was the work of heartbeats, despite being upside down. At least, it was after he recovered from his initial shock at the lack of mundane security. The old Dharo and Draegis sites he was used to were infinitely more challenging.
Still concerned, but with growing confidence, he rolled over the lip of the roof into the room.
A quick glance around to get his bearings and Airen was off to another room, to bar the door to the downstairs.
Two hours later, he sat in his room over the Tapped Keg. On reflection, the tavern’s name wasn’t all that original, but the patrons came to drink, not to be impressed by creativity. By the same token, the room Airen had rented for a couple weeks wasn’t much more than a closet. But, it wasn’t normally rented, it was cheap, and there were no other guests since the owner didn’t run an inn, as he repeatedly told Airen while accepting his payment. In fact, the thin mattress on the floor was the only sign that it wasn’t a storeroom. Airen guessed it was probably used as a hideout for thieves, maybe even spies or assassins.
Regardless of its normal use, it was convenient.
Therefore, he sat on the mattress and looked over an eight page almanack. The thing looked small and fragile in the conjured globe of light hovering over his head. It was no wonder that the previous owner probably thought it worthless. There was nothing to show that the parchment was, if his guesses were correct, nearly two millennia old. The first time he saw it, Airen knew the document to be written in the Draegis tongue. A hurried second look gave him a rough estimate of the age and narrowed the possible dialects.
Now, he picked out some word choices and idiosyncratic spellings that made him positive the pages were written in a royal dialect. If it contained what he hoped, then it had once been part of a larger work. The rest had most likely been destroyed in the years after Draegis fell or was cut up for sale to wealthy collectors. A few other signs, including the hand and grammatical style, dated the piece to one of two centuries. Both were middle imperial dynasties, either was therefore valuable.
His eyes skimmed over the handwritten text, seeking the information he desired.
After a time, Airen’s sharp intake of breath heralded his discovery.
The document, lost for many centuries, did contain what he’d sought!
Near the end of the saved pages was a description of a royal tomb, or some other site. The language denoting its purpose was vague. But that didn’t matter. The important thing was that, if his imprecise dating was correct, it would be the oldest Draegian site he had ever found. Judging by the description of its location, it was remote for the period, far from the oft explored centers of Draegian society. Who knew what the site’s population had been two thousand or more years ago? But, it was important enough for a scribe of the royal family, perhaps even an imperial relative’s, to record in a text. That alone implied artifacts, or at the very least pieces of building decoration. With appropriate spells and enough pack mules, maybe a pack dragon if the site warranted the cost, even at the worst he could bring back enough to live off of for several years. And given the description, it probably hadn’t been explored yet.
Even so, he would have to consult some maps to acquire an exact location. He could only tell that it was not in Theris because of the description, a wooded mountain valley with notable landmarks. Theris had no mountains, so he would have to seek the site in another kingdom, hopefully not among the Eldren or in Imalzair. The reptilians and the Imalzairi still worshiped the greater dragons as gods and would defend imperial sites to the death.
The next day, Airen was quite pleased with his luck. Not only had he found the document and acquired it, but he’d done so in Baronsport, where innumerable cartographers set up shops. Most would specialize in sea charts to cater to the docks and sailors, it was true. He knew of a couple who also dealt in land based maps, a necessity in his profession. And it just so happened that one owed him a debt. Access to his collection of original maps should balance accounts.
A few streets up from the shore, he pushed open the door of the small cartographer’s shop. The intrusion caused a couple apprentices to look up from their work at an equal number of tables. They all went back to work within a few heartbeats as their master arrived. Airen took one glance at the man’s downcast expression and grinned.
“Ildrek, my old friend,” he practically sang out, “How is your health, and wife?”
“Until recently, quite well,” the cartographer grumbled, “What do you want, Airen?”
“Can a man not simply wish to see a friend?”
“Mayhap . . . if you had any friends, Airen.”
He feigned a frown, “As it happens, I do need to collect on that debt you owe, Ildrek.”
“Business has been slow,” he sighed, “I can only cover a fourth part of it.”
Airen waved a hand in dismissal. “Coins are as nothing between friends, or so the priests of Ailya would have us believe. As it happens, in this case they may be correct. Give me the rest of the day, and others if needed, with your maps . . . the originals . . . and your debt is forgotten. I may even buy one, if I find what I need.”
He could see wheels turning in the merchant’s mind. The debt would take months of profit, yet the original maps were the source of his livelihood. If the latter were stolen or copied, Ildrek stood to lose a lot of business and status in his guild. Or he could effectively make several months’ profit in one day. Airen knew the conclusion of the debate. He had won before the debate started.
A reasonable time passed before Ildrek nodded. But, he did nod.
“Fine,” the cartographer’s tone one of resignation, “but only upstairs in the back, and nothing leaves the shop. And all debts are wiped clean.”
Airen nodded, “Of course. I hope to take no more than a few days . . . and I assume I can rely on your discretion?”
The other man nodded in return.
“I won’t hold you to complete silence, friend,” Airen tempered, “Just give me three days after I leave before telling anyone. If I find out you’ve done otherwise, the debt’s back, and doubled.” After another nod, he added, “Then escort me upstairs and I will give you my requirements, to limit the number of maps.” The last included to assuage some of the craftsman’s distaste for the deal.
The next couple days passed slowly for Airen. While maps were helpful, even necessary, in his trade, that did not mean he enjoyed spending nearly the entirety of every day staring at maps of mountainous regions. He’d much rather be looking at a map as he traveled somewhere, not stuck in a paranoid shopkeeper’s garret with only a globe of conjured light for company and no moving air to speak of. Even the city was starting to grate on his nerves. Over a week in the bustling place, despite the variety that a port offered, was nearly too much. The smell of fish, for one thing, had grown old and tiresome fast, especially since it was stronger at the cartographer’s.
Halfway through the third day, he muttered an oath that would offend the clergy of several gods.
A scrambled shuffling of parchments and vellum followed until Airen produced the eight pages of old Draegis script.
He hurriedly skimmed the notable markers again, for perhaps the sixtieth time since he’d recovered the document.
From the sounds downstairs, his shout of triumph had disturbed the apprentices. The shouts running up the stairwell suggested a few anatomical impossibilities and a couple upset jars of ink. A small part of Airen’s mind that wasn’t yet celebrating hoped none of the expensive purple or gold had been lost, or he’d be expected to pay for it.
He rolled up the prize map and stashed it in his satchel before footsteps on the stairs became audible. By the time Ildrek reached the garret, he had a decoy map in hand. At the cartographer’s look of askance, Airen handed over the randomly grabbed map.
“Do you have any copies of this one?”
The other man glanced at the offered parchment. “The lower Kadrest? Not much call for maps of that region, except from the Crown. Southern Imalzair isn’t exactly a big trade area these days.”
Airen almost grinned. “In that case, the original cannot be worth much. What do you want for it?”
Ildrek named a steep price after some thought and the haggling began.
A short time later, Airen left the shop with the decoy map concealing his true prize. His purse was a bit lighter than he would have liked, but it was worthwhile for two maps, even if Ildrek didn’t realize he’d sold two. Besides, the cartographer would be off his trail. Anyone he told about the last couple of days would look in Imalzair, not . . . wherever it was he was actually going.
The map was spread out on Airen’s meager pallet as he stuffed his few belongings into a pack. He looked over it while buckling on a belt that bore his baselard and dagger. As he shouldered his pack, he determined that the valley he wanted was in Dzare, near the furthest reaches of the old empire. That was better than it could have been, Airen thought as he rolled the parchment and slipped it inside his shirt. Dzare was only a week’s travel away by ship and land. Since it was landlocked, the fastest way was to sail to Mintend, then hike for a couple days. Inside the kingdom, things should be easy, given the state of disorganization he’d heard rumors of. Some nobles might be paranoid about their borders, but most would be too busy playing the political games to bother with a lone traveler.
Ships to Mintend left on a regular basis, it being one of Theris’ most important trade partners. Even so, Airen paid his landlord and set out not toward the docks, but north along the sea road.
A few miles in that direction there was a cove covered on three sides by cliffs that looked to be carved from the rock by sword strokes. There, he knew, were caverns with outlets above. And in those caverns were pirates, smugglers, and the goods they hoped to sell. They were well hidden from all eyes. He only knew the location because those in his trade often needed the services of those with more discretion and greed than moral fiber. Their sort were often helpful with moving certain goods or providing a safe place to sleep for a couple days, due to their own code.
By sunset, he had booked passage on a swift smuggler’s ship that left with the morning tide, a place to spend the night, and a meal. The food wasn’t the best, mostly hardtack, salt pork, and cheap beer, but he’d had worse and more expensive in his past. The side cave was a bit cramped too, with nearly a dozen sailors plus himself crammed into it, but it had a comfortable sandy floor and lacked drafts aside from those caused by the one old-timer’s snores.
The ship came into port a few days later, with Airen disembarking in Mintend. This time of year, the seas were calm between the two kingdoms, with little chance of foul weather. And the royal families maintained naval patrols sufficient to discourage all but the most desperate pirates. Thus, the first leg of the journey, he found to be restfully uneventful aside from a fellow passenger who wasn’t cut out for sea travel. The man spent most of the trip hanging over the side feeding the fishes, as the sailors called it.
Securing a horse to make the landward end of his travels easier proved more difficult.
Reason was give by the fifth horse trader Airen tried. When asked, the woman gestured toward the local lord’s fortress.
“It’s the rumors, innit?” she said, “They say war’s comin’, with Dzare, most like. His lordship’s buying up or demanding all the horseflesh in the duchy, fer pullin’ supplies they say.”
Airen agreed that he could not argue or compete with the count as he couldn’t jail anyone who refused him.
After a considerable time longer than he had wanted to be in the port, he had to settle for a nag so old and used that even the duke’s desperate men-at-arms turned her down. And, to add insult, he had to pay twice what she was worth after an hour of haggling. Truth be told, he’d thought, the miserable horse probably wouldn’t save him any time, but at least his feet would be saved. And she could always be eaten if necessary, although he would be the first to admit that his memories of roast horsemeat were not the best.
On the first day out of the port, Airen took pity on the beast and led her by a halter after stowing his supplies alone on her back.
As the sun set on that day, his practiced eye caught signs of both bandit activity and a regular campsite. The foothills of the Guardian range were, he knew, marked by sites at which traders and caravans regularly stopped. Usually the sites were small, but protected. Because the hills and mountains held fortresses of both nations and bandits, the campsites were often easy for small groups to defend. Even though there were spells that could cause new tracks to look old, and these looked to be a couple days old, Airen decided to risk it, to preserve his horse.
Of course, he cast a few spells of protection and alarm that the average trader would not be capable of.
One of the latter silently woke him partway through the night. Before he fully woke, Airen rolled to a crouch, his eyes averted from the faintly glowing coals and his short, heavy-bladed sword drawn. He listened for both the nag and movement while his night adjusted eyes caught something in the dark. After a few heartbeats, he spotted a deeper darkness, man-shaped, in the gap between two boulders. He’d placed a couple spells there: a noisy alarm, a ward against insects and small animals, and an illusion, the last set to go off with the alarm. An Eldren would probably ignore the illusion, but he hadn’t heard of them entering Dzare in any notable numbers recently.
The figure took a step into the space between the rocks.
Instantly, the ear-piercing cry of a hunting hawk, magnified several score times, ripped through the night.
Before the cry ended, the embers of Airen’s campfire seemed to flare up. The resulting light revealed a hulking figure in full knightly regalia stalking toward the intruder, naked blade in hand.
Whatever had disturbed the traveler’s sleep vanished with the sound of skittering stones and debris.
Airen grinned as he dispelled the illusion and reset the alarm. It was, he thought, a good thing the robber hadn’t touched the knight, or made it move more than a couple feet. He could only produce the most basic of illusions. In daylight, the knight would stand up to no scrutiny whatsoever. But, it served its purpose, and there would likely be stories of the hulking warrior traveling this road flying through the foothills by morning. Probably leading an entire troop of knights and infantry by midday.
The next day, he rode for a time. Because his maps showed one trail for a while, he rested his feet and eyes, letting his mount find her way.
Just before midday, Airen dismounted to get a better idea of his location.
He compared the old map of the region around the valley to a more recent map of the Guardians he had acquired in the port. Apparently, relations between Mintend and Dzare were such that neither had entirely reliable maps of the other’s part of the range. Both kingdoms officially hunted cartographers from the other nation. Which, of course, meant that many mapmakers slipped across the moving border in order to increase their profits and reputations. Or they made things up. Based on a comparison, Airen was fairly certain that the master he’d gotten his map from was one of the former.
If that was the case, he figured that he should reach a travelers’ inn by nightfall. They were rare in the mountains, but there was a point where the important trade trail passed through a tiny valley. Assuming both maps were correct and there had been no major rockslides or earthquakes in the last thousand years, he should reach the valley he desired a half day’s hike later. Longer if he had to scramble over a rockslide.
A few hours later, he discovered that at least one map was still accurate.
The tiny valley did indeed exist and it had an equally small inn. Airen’s hopes for a good and easy expedition rose as he spotted white smoke curling from the dwelling’s chimney. Seeing as the, he guessed single floor, building was the only structure visible, the sheep and handful of cattle had to belong to the owner. And the fire probably wouldn’t smell all that wonderful up close, he thought after noting the lack of trees.
As he drew closer, he spotted a small stable next to the turf and stone building. Probably all local, he thought as he led his nag into the meager facilities. At least there was fair food from the garden and field he’d seen. The horse tended to, Airen passed through the stout wooden door, the only wood he saw and probably imported, maybe once part of a wagon. He noted that it was the only wood once he was inside too. The bar and tables, even chairs, were stone. Rather than doors, side rooms had wool curtains. And behind the low bar was an older man whose sons probably should have taken over years ago.
The man smiled, a toothless gesture, and drew a ladleful of some dark liquid into an earthenware cup.
“We’re not picky, sir . . . room’s three copper bits a night, drinks’re two fer one, and two bits fer dinner.”
Airen nodded as he accepted the drink, likely the only one they had. “And news of the road ahead?”
The innkeeper chuckled hoarsely, “Depends on where yer goin’ . . . and why. Some says a big warrior with a troop’ve demons is on the road.”
“Rumors are the same on all roads,” he grinned, “I’m heading to a valley, about half a day south and east . . . to sell my sword, such as it is.”
“Ah,” the other nodded sagely, “don’ take much with wars’n these parts. But yeh’d do better further south. Strange folk in Farwatch, they say. If they even let yeh past the wall. Strange folk ‘n even stranger goin’s on down in Farwatch Vale, so they’s said since my grandda’s time.”
“So you have knowledge of this Farwatch? Someone’s there now, not just villagers?”
“Inn’s been family since my grandda’s da’s days. Some says as the Count’s been the same all those years, unnatural it is. And they don’ take much fer wars neither, it’s said.”
“We’ll see, I suppose . . . how might I get there.” After all, his most recent map could be over half a century old, despite the maker’s assurances.
“Yer time,” the innkeep shrugged, “Follow the trail south a ways ter the main road, that goes on south a ways more befer yeh find a road goin’ northeast. It’s up that road yeh’ll find Farwatch, the pass ends inna wall with but one gate. Or so them as comes through says.”
Airen sought his room shortly after, pleased that the description matched his map. Except for the wall, that wasn’t on the map. His map could therefore be older than he’d feared. Lots of other features could be missing.
He fell asleep with images of Draegis artifacts scrolling through his mind.
Soon after sunrise, Airen was on the trail. Apparently the reputation he’d started spread fast as he saw no one else by the time he reached the main road. By noon, however, he’d passed a wagon loaded with goods heading south into Dzare from a mountain province. Even at his sedate pace, he overtook the ox-drawn wagon with ease. No greetings were exchanged as the drover watched Airen, suspicion clear in his eyes. Likely thought he’d be robbed.
Around mid-afternoon, he found the road to Farwatch. Given the wall and the innkeeper’s warning, he decided to go up the path a couple hundred bow lengths and set up a camp for the night. With an early start, he figured he could reach the valley around midmorning.
Dawn, later in the mountains than he was used to, found Airen already on his way, loading his horse. She’d seemed to perk up after the brief stay at the inn and took a day without her rider with a certain exuberance. He had to restrain his own excitement with the reminder that he didn’t quite know what was ahead.
A short time before midmorning, he saw what the innkeep meant.
About a bowshot ahead stood a wall reaching from one side of the pass to the other. Even at the distance, Airen guessed it to be the height of three or four tall men, probably half as thick, if he was any judge of walls. From the looks of it, the wall had a single gate and no towers. And he thought he saw movement along the top. No hope that it was abandoned and forgotten then.
There was still a chance of talking his way past, despite the innkeep’s warning.
The imperial temple was worth trying for, even with this problem.