Monday, September 8, 2014
Mel awoke with a pounding headache. She couldn’t see anything; she didn’t know if she was in the dark or if she was blinded by the searing light she saw right before she passed out.
She was aware she was lying on a cold, hard surface. The pain in her back reminded her of the days in her childhood, living on the streets, getting whipped for stealing food. She reached back and felt burn holes straight through her armor; the exposed skin was smooth and raw from the heat. Parts of her dirty blonde hair were singed as well- she would need to cut most of it off after this was all over if she wanted to look remotely attractive. But for the moment, at least, she was alive.
As she started to stir, she heard a voice nearby. It sounded familiar, but it took her a moment to place it. She was relieved to know that she was not deafened by the blast as well.
“Here, relax,” it said. “Drink this.”
She felt a waterskin being put to her lips, and she drank from it like a dying man in the desert. Almost immediately, however, she coughed, sputtering the liquid as it burned her throat and her nose.
“What the-“ she began, coughing. “That… that’s pure alcohol.”
“What did you expect? That’s what I keep in there.”
She recognized the voice: Alastor.
Mel rubbed her eyes, turning her head to and fro for anything she could see. After a moment, she heard Alastor mutter something under his breath, and a small ball of flame- the same one he always conjured- appeared in the darkness, illuminating his weary face like a skeletal mask. When the day began, she did not expect herself to ever be relieved to see him perform that stale trick, but here she was.
Satisfied that she still had her vision, she sat up, her back and muscles burning, and let her eyes adjust to the light. Just a few paces away, she could see Cadmus’ body lying on the stone floor, his chest rising and falling rhythmically. She looked down at her throwing hand- it was wrapped tightly with a blood-saturated field dressing. It felt like it had stopped bleeding, and she could move it, but she was afraid to uncover it just yet. At least it felt usable.
“I owe you an apology,” she said quietly, not making eye contact with the mage.
“I said I owe you an apology,” she repeated, her tone hinging on annoyed. Of course he heard it the first time, but if she truly meant it she was willing to say it twice. “I didn’t think you could actually use magic. I thought you had been lying to us this whole time. You know, all that stuff I said to you when I thought we were about to die.”
Alastor shrugged. “I wouldn’t call you completely wrong. I’m not… exactly as I presented myself at first. I’m not a wizard.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “But… you cast magic. Don’t tell me you’re a priest.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m a Sangcaster.”
She snorted derisively. “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Eodon.”
He simply stared, saying nothing else.
“No,” Mel said, her tone serious again. “You can’t be. Those aren’t real.”
Alastor shrugged, once again saying nothing.
“Show me one documented case of a Sangcaster that wasn’t a fraud trying to hustle a king out of his kingdom.”
Still the so-called Sangcaster simply sat, unblinking. “Believe what you want,” he said simply.
“Fine,” Mel said, growing irritated. “I’ll admit you’re a spellcaster, like I just did. And a powerful one at that. But pardon me if I’m not willing to believe a claim like that at first glance.”
Nearby, Cadmus began to stir, his voice grunting as he gradually woke. Mel walked over to him, taking an arm and helping him to a sitting position. His red skin looked abnormally pale, his sword hand was swollen and purple, and he had dried blood crusted at the base of the horns on his head, but he was awake and aware of his surroundings.
“What… what happened?”
Mel gestured towards Alastor. “The mage here finally put his magic to good use.”
Cadmus squinted, tilting his head to make sure he was looking at the right person. He leaned over to Mel, whispering, “I thought you said he-“
“I was wrong,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Well, whatever you did, Alastor,” said Cadmus, “it must have worked. Last thing I remember was a dragon… and I pushed my way through more goblins than I could count… and… I think I fell into a hole or something?”
“I used… a bit more of my power than I meant to,” Alastor said, clearing his throat. “As far as I can tell, I caused a bit of a cave-in. When I woke up, we were all here- I think the floor broke under our feet and we fell to wherever this is.”
Mel got up and walked around, stretching and feeling the burns on her back. She felt around for her gear, but either it was destroyed in the blast or it got lost somewhere in the fall. She asked Cadmus for a torch and a flint, and in a few moments had a light source of her own. Walking the length of the space in which they had awoken, Mel eventually found a large part of the cave wall that was loose. Calling the others near, she and Cadmus managed to drag it out of its place, exposing a fissure in the wall wide enough for them to climb through. Most importantly, however, her torch began to dance and waver when brought near the opening.
“There’s a way out through here,” she said. “Mind if I go first?”
Cadmus, still looking weak, gestured her through. She saw Alastor hand his waterskin to the trystborn as she passed through the rock wall. The space was narrow, and she had to contort her body a few odd ways, but after a short while she had managed to slip through, and the cave quickly began to widen. She set her torch down and helped the mage climb through the crevice, but Cadmus had difficulty. They first had him take off his armor- made more difficult with only one usable hand- passing it and his gear through ahead of him, and only then was he thin enough to fit through the rocky passage.
Shortly after the cave began to widen, they could hear the sound of running water- a good sign. Mel was relieved to find a small waterfall trickling down from somewhere above, emptying into a shallow pool of fresh water at their feet. They took some time to drink and wash wounds, and continued on from there. Mel occasionally winced at the feeling of a cool breeze taunting the burns on her back- Cadmus generously offered her his traveling cloak from his pack, which she used to cover up the burn holes in her armor. She unwrapped her hand, a grimace crossing her lips. After rinsing off her makeshift bandage, she wrapped it up tightly once more.
The three adventurers walked and crawled and climbed through the pitch-black caves, relying on Alastor’s magic light and their steadily dwindling supply of torches for what felt like the better part of a day, and Mel began to fear that they were trapped. She was following an air source, but she had no way of knowing whether it was near, or far, or even accessible for them with their limited supplies. And eventually, they would run out of food or water. That wouldn’t happen today, or the next day, or even the day after that, but it was hanging at the back of her mind.
Perhaps it was this preoccupation that made her walk straight past a landmark that should have caught her eye.
“Mel, what are you doing?”
Cadmus, who had grown less pale but still walked with a pronounced limp, had stopped walking. Alastor stood beside him, staring at something on the wall.
“What do you mean,” she began, confused. “I’m walking through-“
She followed their gaze with their own, and realized she had just walked past a massive flat stone wall with a symbol of an ornate eye carved into it.
“My gods,” she said, staring up at the eye that seemed to stare back.
Cadmus walked up, his good hand reaching forward to touch it, only to hesitate and apparently change his mind. “What do you suppose this is? A door of some sort? Or just a piece of art someone hid in the middle of a cave out here in nowhere?”
Mel studied the wall, noticing details that would be invisible to the untrained eye: tiny seams, indicating that parts of the wall are not connected to others, and nigh-invisible runes inked along the seams, meaning that magic is involved- either as a trigger to open the door, or as a trap to keep it closed.
“Alastor, tell me,” she began, glad for an opportunity to showcase her little-known knowledge. “You may not be a member of a college of Wizardry, but do you know what this symbol represents?”
The mage exhaled loudly. “Of course. That’s the symbol of Caelaes, god of magic.”
Mel grinned, nodding. “Good, good. Half credit to you. The symbol of Caelaes is an eye, much like this one. But, unless I’m mistaken, the Church of the Archmage uses this symbol, but with a circle of runes around it denoting the different schools of magic.”
Alastor shrugged. “So?”
“So,” she continued, “this isn’t quite the symbol of Caelaes. Legend has it Caelaes was himself once mortal, like a few of the minor gods. He ascended to godhood when he became one with magic itself, or something like that.”
Cadmus, who had sat down from fatigue, pointed at the symbol, dumbfounded. “I don’t get it. Then what does this mean?”
She shook her head, sighing. “The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve heard it said that the eye symbol that the Church of the Archmage uses was already a symbol representing magic before his followers adopted it as their own.”
No response from the other two. Apparently she had to spell it out.
“I’m trying to say this door might be older than the church itself. As in, really, really old. And possibly really powerful.”
Alastor walked up close to it, studying it himself. Mel watched him- it was interesting, now that she saw him in a different light. He clearly had magical power, but he obviously didn’t get that magic power through years of rigorous studying of musty tomes. She didn’t believe for a moment he was a Sangcaster, one of the legendary beings of power beyond measure whose only weakness was that they had little to no control over it- but he was definitely interesting. Watching him study this door, it was like watching a person rediscover who they are after losing their memory. She was lost in this train of thought when he reached a hand forward, touching one of the seams on the door.
“Uh, Alastor, I wouldn’t do that-“ she managed to blurt out the moment he touched it. There was a spark, a small flash of blue light, and the mage jerked his hand back as if he had just touched a red-hot coal. “Yeah,” she continued, “I meant to say… this door is probably trapped…”
“It’s not trapped,” said Alastor, rubbing his fingers, his eyes still transfixed on the symbol. “It’s just locked. It needs magic in order to open.”
Mel made eye contact with Cadmus, and the two of them looked back to Alastor. If she had her tools, she was confident she could open almost any normal lock- but she wouldn’t even know where to start with a magical one. In any case, her gear- what hadn’t been tossed at the feet of the goblins- was destroyed by Alastor’s magic. She left her lute back at Esprit’s mansion, but even that wouldn’t be of much help.
Cadmus spoke up. “Then… can’t you cast a spell at it? Would that open the door?”
The mage shook his head. He placed his head against the door, and Mel had to resist the urge to pull him away. But the door offered no offense this time. His eyes were closed, his cheek and ear against the surface. It was like he was putting his ear to the ground, hoping to hear for a coming stampede.
“It needs… permanent magic,” he said, stepping away from the door. “Do either of you have any magic items?”
Mel and Cadmus made eye contact again, and though the trystborn froze awkwardly, Mel nodded. “My armor. I don’t know how much magic it still has left- it got damaged pretty badly during that blast…” She felt the urge to glare at Alastor, but she reminded himself that she would likely be dead if he hadn’t done what he did. “…But it is- or at the very least, was- magical when I got it. It’s protected me from plenty a battle.”
Alastor came close to her, pushing her borrowed cloak aside and leaning his face a hair’s breadth from the singed leather plates wrapped around her body. It made her uncomfortable, but it was only for a moment.
He turned back to the door, speaking to her as he did so. “Do you know how magic items are given their enchantment?”
Mel thought about it, then shook her head. “I don’t think I do, no.”
“Then let me give you a small lesson,” he continued. “Magic is neither created nor destroyed. It just kind of… is.” He began pacing around the area in front of the door as he spoke. “When you make permanent magic, you’re taking a piece of the magic in the air around you and bringing it into physical form. Unlike casting a spell, it doesn’t ever rejoin the magic in the air. It stays physical, in some form or another, forever.”
He walked around Cadmus, then around Mel, talking the whole time. Mel, for one, was quite interested in what he had to say- it was the first time he had talked about magic in the days since they met.
“It is possible to remove the magic from one item and put it into another. It’s not easy- not everyone can do it- but it can be done, and it can save on the costly materials needed to make a magic item from scratch. But when you do this, you’re really taking the essence from one item and putting it into another. In some cases, this brings about new magic items with the abilities of the old, even if that wasn’t what the crafter intended.”
Mel nodded. “You know, you’re right. I remember hearing a tale a long time ago about a woman who owned a magic pair of shears that, for some reason, could magically rotate objects. You’re saying maybe, in that case, the shears were made using the magic of another magic item that could do that?”
Alastor nodded as well. “Right. But what I’m trying to say is that when a magic item gets destroyed, the magic in it doesn’t just disappear. It has to go somewhere- it has to become something.”
Mel followed along. Cadmus looked lost.
“And what it becomes…” Mel heard the soft whisper of a blade being drawn, but before she could react, she felt a scrap of her armor being cut off where the edges were frayed from being burnt.
Alastor stopped her objection, stowing a dagger somewhere beneath his robes with one hand and holding up the scrap of leather in the other. He muttered something quietly, and the ball of flame erupted in his hand, turning the leather into a tiny burnt pile of ash. He blew gently on the ash, and as it cascaded away, Mel saw in his hand a miniscule amount of glittery, silver dust.
“What it becomes is Concordum, the physical essence of permanent magic.”
Mel stared at the tiny flecks of dust in his hand, mesmerized by its appearance. She almost couldn’t look away.
The mage, carefully closing his hand, walked back up to the door. Opening his fingers once more, he gently, yet quickly pressed his palm, along with the Concordum, against the door. The giant eye symbol began to glow momentarily, and when it subsided, the wall- everything inside the seams Mel had noticed earlier- was gone, leaving an open entryway to the chamber beyond.
She stared, eyes open wide in amazement, and took the opportunity to start a slow clap for the mage. She of course realized how it likely sounded insincere, but she did it anyway. “Well, well, color me surprised,” she began. “Since you solved the puzzle, Alastor, by all means, feel free to be the first to enter the chamber beyond.”
Alastor snapped his attention back to her, an eyebrow raised. “Not a chance. You were the one who said this might be trapped.”
The two of them turned their eyes to Cadmus, who opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Drawing his broadsword with his uninjured offhand, he slowly stepped into the ancient sealed room.
Luckily, the chamber did not seem to be trapped. Mel followed close behind the warrior, keeping her eyes open for any signs of traps, physical or otherwise. The room was quite large- larger than she had been expecting- and though she held a torch high above her head, after the three of them had crossed the threshold of the antechamber, the walls themselves began to glow a soft white, filling the room with a hazy glow that eliminated any shadows. Knowing that fuel was becoming scarce, she quickly smothered the torch with a rag. Behind her, Alastor kept his ball of flame in his hand, though he held it near his side instead of ahead. As they crept, along with the hazy light, Mel felt like sounds themselves were quieter, muffled, like she had cotton in her ears.
The walls of the room were featureless save for four rows of fluted columns lining the edges, but in the center was a white marble altar. Mel grabbed Cadmus and stopped him from approaching, as the moment he got close she noticed a faint black circle drawn onto the floor around it. She was unsure if the circle was there when they entered or if it just made itself visible, but she knelt down to examine it.
“Hey, magic expert,” she called back to Alastor, beckoning him forward. “Do you recognize what type of magic circle this is?”
Almost too soon, he replied with a simple, “No.” She turned her head back to look at him- he didn’t even look like he glanced at it. She thought to question him, asking what happened to his intimate knowledge of magical objects, but instead she just assumed that his display out in the caves was some kind of rare savant moment for him. With a sigh, she leaned in close to the circle, making sure not to cross or touch it.
“Mel- did you just see that-“
Cadmus was pointing at the altar, several paces away, his eyes looking unfocused in the hazy light. Mel followed his gaze, but saw nothing. Maybe something flat was sitting on the altar, but from their distance she couldn’t tell and she didn’t want to get any closer.
“See what? Cadmus, hand me your sword if you don’t mind…”
She held out a hand and looked back down at the edge of the circle, thinking maybe she could scratch at it with a blade and see if it was a painted line or an indelible one. But when she felt no weapon in her hand, she looked up just in time to see Cadmus step over the line, walking slowly towards the altar.
“Cadmus- wait, don’t do that-“
He paused, blinked, then looked around himself for a moment. His expression looked confused, and he stowed his broadsword and rubbed his eyes, glancing around, and then back to Mel.
“Cadmus,” she said, alarmed. “What in the world are you doing? That line could have killed you, or sent you to the Shadowsands or turned you into a chicken. That was not a wise move.”
He scratched his head. “Didn’t you see them? There were… three women, it looked like. Three old women- or maybe they were young- standing around this altar. They were… They were writing something…”
Mel heard nothing but the muffled sound of the trystborn’s footsteps as he walked up to the altar. He reached for it, and she called out for him to stop but either not hearing her or not listening to her he picked up what looked like a piece of parchment laying on its smooth surface.
“It’s… a list, it looks like. A list of names or something.”
Alastor, who had silently placed himself directly beside the bard, stared in confusion. “A list of names? Bring it here.”
The two waited for Cadmus to exit the circle, neither one willing to cross over the line. When the warrior returned, he held out the parchment for them to see.
Alastor snatched it from the trystborn’s uninjured hand first, his elderly eyes glancing up and down at it. “I don’t get it. It’s a list of names. That’s it. We entered a chamber sealed by magic for hundreds, if not thousands of years, complete with an altar in the middle of a magic circle with apparently illusory guardians watching over it, and all it’s holding is a list of names? Is this some kind of a joke?”
Mel took the list, looking it over herself.
“I don’t get it either. What’s more, I recognize some of these names. The Regias Brotherhood? They’re that group of bandits that’s been terrorizing the Southern Vale. Anastasia Renald is a princess or queen or something of the country to the East. This one’s a villain from a children’s fairy tale. There’s no way these names were on here hundreds of years ago.”
Cadmus shook his head. “Unless this is some kind of a prophecy.”
Mel and Alastor spoke at the same time.
“Prophecies aren’t real,” Mel said.
“Divination magic doesn’t do that,” Alastor interjected.
Mel glanced at the mage quizzically, once again surprised by his knowledge of magic that didn’t seem to manifest itself until recently. The three of them crowded around the list, looking at it once more for any missed details. Mel recognized a few more names that sounded familiar from her travels, but nothing she could place easily.
Before they could deduce anything, however, she realized that the light in the room was beginning to dim, and the slight muffling of sounds was no longer apparent. She re-lit her torch, and the three of them hurried out of the chamber, lest some unexpected magical ward trigger if they tarried too long. Cadmus carefully rolled up the list with one hand and placed it in his pack, and the three continued on through the caves.
As they walked away, Mel glanced back, only to find that she didn’t see the doorway anywhere in the cave wall. In fact, the natural, rough stone walls looked completely undisturbed, as if the eye symbol and doorway had never existed at all.
Miraculously, a short while later, the cave floor began a steady incline, and Mel noticed her torch flame dancing more vigorously than it had been previous. The incline grew slightly more steep the further they came, and although Cadmus still had trouble due to his injured leg and hand, they eventually came to the top, where a narrow crack in the ceiling opened into the cool night air. Pulling themselves through with no small difficulty, the three of them immediately set up camp, eager to rest now that they were free from the dark and claustrophobic underground.
Once they had a steady fire roaring, Mel sat warming her feet by the flames as Cadmus unrolled the list and began looking over it once again. He held it up between himself and the fire, likely looking for hidden watermarks or other subtle details.
“Anything interesting,” Mel asked, “or just an ordinary list of ordinary names?”
Cadmus shook his head. “Nothing I can tell. I feel like I recognize a few of the names, but I don’t recall who they are. It just strikes me as odd. I would have expected some kind of magical treasure being kept in there, just like Alastor said.”
Alastor, who so far had been sitting up with his eyes closed- Mel had actually assumed the mage had fallen asleep- suddenly spoke up, startling her slightly. “A powerful- or at the very least valuable- magical artifact would have made this whole debacle worth it. Instead we risked our lives and limbs for basically nothing.”
Mel rolled her eyes. As much as he looked like an old man, Alastor certainly acted like a spoiled child at times. Though she would have preferred to find at least something valuable in the goblins’ hideout on top of the agreed payment for the quest, she felt lucky to have escaped with her life.
“Alastor,” she said, shifting her weight on the hard ground, “is there any way you can tell if the list is magical? I mean, I assumed it would be, even if it doesn’t seem to do anything.”
The mage shook his head. “I already tried when we found it. It’s just a normal piece of parchment with normal ink, valued at approximately zero gold coins. It’ll do us lots of good in our travels, I’m sure.”
Mel sighed, and Cadmus continued to study the list, squinting in the darkness.
“On second thought,” said the mage, holding his hand out, “can I see that list?”
Cadmus handed it over, and Alastor held it for a moment. Then, to Mel’s horror, he tossed the parchment into the fire angrily.
She jumped to her feet, screaming at the old man who sat with a look of triumph in his eyes. “What in Carceri is wrong with you!?”
But Cadmus hopped to his good leg and quickly reached into the fire, grabbed at the list and pulled it out, shaking it frantically to stop the flames, the fire licking harmlessly at his trystborn skin.
“That damned list is nothing but garbage,” Alastor said, staring at the burning parchment. “I did all of us a favor.”
Except the parchment wasn’t burning. When Cadmus finished shaking the flames off, the three adventurers stared at it in shock, but the list was whole and undamaged. It looked no different than when they first found it on the altar.
Alastor’s indignant expression changed to one of frustration. Mel glared at him pushing him away from the document, lest he try something else stupid.
“I don’t know what you were thinking,” she started, stepping between him and Cadmus. “If the names on this list have any value whatsoever, you would have destroyed it. Besides, I thought you said it was nonmagical.”
Alastor tried to speak, but the first few words just sputtered. “It isn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t detect as magical. If it is, it must be magically protected, including making the magic impossible to detect.”
Cadmus raised an eyebrow. “Is that possible?”
The mage nodded. “It’s difficult, but yes.”
Mel didn’t know if he was telling the truth or just trying to divert their attention from what he just did.
The trystborn turned the parchment over and over, looking at it intently again. “Who would go through the trouble of making something that was also magically resistant to damage, and then hide the fact that it’s magical, all for an ordinary list? Doesn’t that make you think it has to be valuable, if they went through all that trouble?”
“I agree,” said Mel, once again leering at the mage. “I recommend you hang onto it for now, Cadmus. Apparently some of us can’t be trusted with nice things.”
Alastor glared back. Without a word, he stepped out of the firelight and laid down on his bedroll. Mel couldn’t tell if he was asleep, but just in case she offered to keep watch while Cadmus slept.
She spent the rest of the night gazing at the stars.