IV. The Sage
Twilight had settled upon the town by the time Cydric and Holleena finished their meal of Simon’s fish stew and left the docks. The full moon was beginning to rise as they arrived at the house of Corambis, which stood at the far eastern edge of the Old City. As Cydric’s black stallion came to a stop in front of the gate of the iron fence which enclosed the front yard, Holleena slid off the horse’s back and said, “Here you are, Cydric. Just go to the front door and knock–he is usually home around this time.”
“Wait a moment! Where are you going?” Cydric called as she began to walk away.
“To my own home, of course,” Holleena replied. “It is not very far from here.”
Cydric quickly dismounted. “I should at least accompany you,” he said. “It is getting dark, and–”
“I appreciate your concern, Cydric, but I will be quite safe, I assure you,” She nodded toward the house. “You had better make your visit now, before he goes to sleep.”
Cydric looked back at the house, then shrugged. “Are you certain you will not need an escort?”
“Well, then, I shall not detain you any longer. I thank you for your kind help, Holleena–perhaps we will meet again sometime, at the tavern for instance?”
“Perhaps,” she replied with a slight smile. Turning, she walked briskly away down the block and disappeared into a side street.
Cydric led the black stallion through the iron gate and tethered it to a nearby hitching rack. He paused a moment, recalling what Holleena had told him about the Sage: He made his living by interpreting dreams and omens, and by casting personal horoscopes. His practice earned him enough gold to enable him to have his own private booth in the marketplace. He was well known and respected, and it was said he possessed all manner of arcane knowledge.
Casting a final glance back at the horse, Cydric strode up the paved path that led to the Sage’s front door and knocked. The door opened and a grey-haired bearded middle-aged man dressed in a loose maroon tunic and green trousers peered out. “Yes?”
“Good evening, sir,” Cydric began. “Are you Corambis, the Sage?”
“I am indeed,” the man replied. “How may I be of service?”
“Well, sir,” said Cydric in his most courtly tone of voice, “I am Cydric Araesto, of Baranur, and I have a certain matter to discuss with you.”
“A certain matter, eh? It must be of major import, since you have sought me out like this,” said the Sage.
“Your pardon, sir, I did not mean to disturb your rest–I shall come back tomorrow.”
The Sage smiled. “No, no, it is quite all right. Come inside, young sir, and we shall discuss this matter of yours.”
As Cydric followed Corambis into the house, he tried to guess the man’s age. Although he appeared to be nearing his sixtieth summer, the Sage walked with the stride of a man many years younger.
They passed through a short hallway, then entered the Sage’s small but well-furnished study. A bookshelf containing rows of various leatherbound volumes occupied the entire west wall. The north wall housed a cold fireplace; above the mantle, the stuffed head of a nighthound glared down at them over a pair of crossed swords. A bookshelf also occupied the east wall, but instead of books it contained various small objects, the most prominent of which were a pair of demon’s horns, a bust of the goddess Cahleyna, and the body of a giant leaf-roach encased in a glass pyramid. Lastly, an ornately carved oaken table and three padded chairs stood in front of the fireplace. Motioning for Cydric to sit, Corambis took a pair of tobacco pipes from a rack mounted near the mantle. “Smoke?” he asked, offering one to the young man.
“I thank you, sir,”he replied. The Sage filled both pipes from a pouch that hung around his waist, gave one to Cydric, then took a seat at the opposite end of the table. Cydric took a sniff of the tobacco and noted with delight that it was fine quality Comarian.
“Fazar!” Corambis said suddenly, stabbing a finger at the fireplace. The logs burst into flame, and at the same time Cydric saw a wisp of smoke curl upwards from the bowl of his pipe.
“She did not tell me you were a sorcerer,” he said with some awe.
Corambis made a gesture of dismissal with his pipe. “In truth, Cydric, my abilites are no more that that of minor conjuror. I have neither the power nor the desire to become a full mage.” He paused a moment, exahling a cloud of smoke. “Who did not tell you, by the way?”
“A girl I met a Belisandra’s Tavern. She told me how to find your house.”
“Did she also tell you that I only conduct business during my regular time at the marketplace? But it matters not, I shall make an exception in your case.”
“You are most generous, sir,” replied Cydric.
“Indeed,” said the Sage. “Well now, what is it that you have come all this way to discuss with me?”
“It concerns a vision that I’ve been having of late,” Cydric began. The Sage listened intently as he described the golden sea, the colorless skull, and the carvings in the rock.
“I’ve even made a sketch.” Cydric pulled a roll of parchment from the inner pocket of his cloak and spread it out over the table. “This is what I saw inscribed on the rock. When I compared this outline to a map of the continent, I found that the “x” corresponded to the location of Dargon. And you can see, your name appears below the outline.” Cydric paused and looked up from the table. “And that is why I am here. I am hoping you can tell me what this vision means.”
Corambis picked up the parchment and stared at it for a while, puffing on the pipe and saying nothing. Finally, he stood up and moved to lean against the mantle of the fireplace.Turning, the Sage regarded the young man thoughtfully and said, “I do not believe that I am the one you should be asking.”
Cydric frowned. “Why not? You–”
“It is obvious that the person responsible for our visions intended for you to come to Dargon and seek me out. That much you have understood.”
Before Cydric could form his question the Sage held up a hand. “I shall explain what I mean.” He tossed the parchment into the fire and left the room, motioning for Cydric to follow.
V. The Message
Corambis led the young man into the cellar of the house. Pausing in front of a wine rack, the Sage uttered an arcane phrase and the rack slid aside to reveal a large well-lit room.
“My laboratory,” he said with a sweep of his hand as they entered. The room was full of various kinds of equipment, ranging from alchemistic set-ups to animal skeletons in different states of assembly.
“A truly marvelous collection you have here,” said Cydric as he roamed about the room, eagerly examining the many fascinating objects that lay on tables and shelves.
“Ah, a student of the arcane, are you?” the Sage asked, pleased with the young man’s enthusiasm.
“I suppose I am. I’ve been fascinated by the works of Thassalen the Mystic ever since I was a child,” replied Cydric as he examined a wooden mobile of the World with the surrounding sun and moon.
The Sage grinned and nodded. “Well then, you will certainly be interested in what I have to show you. This way, if you will.”
Cydric followed the older man to the back of the room where stood a table, an ebony box atop it. “Open the box,” said Corambis.
Cydric looked at him suspiciously. “I thought you were going to explain what you were talking about before.”
“The explanation, or part of it, lies within the box. Go ahead.”
The young man paused a moment. Couldn’t be anything dangerous inside, he thought. Shrugging, he flipped the lid back. A gasp of surprise escaped his lips. Within the box was a life-sized human skull, made entirely of crystal. “The skull from the vision! But how?”
The Sage closed the box. “I knew that would get your interest,” he grinned. “Well, this skull appeared on my study room table one day several months ago. That same night I had a dream in which the skull spoke to me, telling me that I would be visited by a man from Baranur who sought the meaning of a mysterious vision. When he arrived, the skull said, I was to speak a certain incantation to receive further instructions.”
“How can you be sure that I am indeed the one?” asked Cydric.
“I am fairly certain, since none of my customers in the last few months have had dreams involving skulls. And I am also certain that the skull’s creator will have some means of verifying its ‘chosen one’,” Corambis replied.
The young man reflected upon this for a moment. “Have you ever had that dream more than once?” he asked.
“Indeed I have, Cydric. It appears in my mind at various times, much like your vision, I would suppose. In fact, I experienced the vision a short time ago, some time before you arrived.”
Cydric felt a sudden chill. “So, our visions are connected in some way to the skull. Have you any idea who sent it?”
“I know not who sent it but I believe that person to be an Elder.”
“An Elder? What would an Elder want with us?”
“Well now, Cydric, the only way to find out is to ask him, eh?” Corambis opened the box again and took out a piece of parchment that lay next to the skull. “This is the incantation that the skull told me to speak.”
“You’re going to read it now?”
“No better time like the present.” Corambis squinted at the page, then began reading: “‘Ghe farsta li voyar etye tavarsta li omnae, nechuzar Bahz se khya seke.’”
They waited. Nothing happened. “Hmmmm,” Corambis mused. “Perhaps I mispronounced that last phrase. Let me–”
A dazzling white light exploded from the skull, filling the room completely. Both men instinctivly shut their eyes and threw up their arms to block out the blinding brightness. Before either could react further, the light ceased as suddenly as it had appeared.
Cydric slowly lowered his arms and peeked at the skull. A soft red glow slo wly pulsed at its center. “Apparently you did pronounce it right,” he said.
“Indeed,” said Corambis, squinting intently at the skull. “What next, I wonder?”
As if in response to the Sage’s question, the red glow pulsed faster until it became a steady blaze. It expanded to fill the skull completely. Then the skull began to speak.
“Greetings,” it said in a cold, ethereal voice. “I bring you a message from Bahz the Elder, Seventh of the Council of Eight of Zaad’Astropolous, capital of the Quentrellian Isle. He has need of your aid, and is willing to reward you generously for your efforts. You must travel to the Citadel of Sorrows, above the shore of the Sea of Time, on the Plane of Tarradan, to free him from his unjust imprisonment. Lest you think you are being lured into a trap of some sort, the Elder sends you this assurance of his good faith. A nugget of chrysoline, rarest of all gemstones. It shall protect you from all forms of hostile magic, and be your passport through the StarDoor.” As the skull spoke, images formed within the red glow. Cydric saw a dark-haired man in purple robes, then an island in a turquoise sea, followed by the image of an imposing castle situated on a foundation of barren rock. The final image was that of a small blue-and-white jewel set in a platinum ring.
“The Elder urges that you respond to his appeal, for his time is limited. Your reward will be very great, he assures you. Make your journey at midnight; the jewel will be your guide.”
A moment after the skull finished speaking, the red glow began to die as cracks appeared in its crystalline surface. A pulsing sound emanated from the skull, growing louder with each beat. Cydric pressed his hands over his ears, but the sound still remained. In his mind he saw the skull, small but growing in size with the volume of the droning beat. Suddenly, the skull in the box shattered into a cloud of crystalline dust just as the sound reached a crescendo. The skull in Cydric’s mind loomed large, filling his thoughts. Then a sharp pain stabbed daggerlike into his soul. He cried out, staggered, then collapsed to the cold stone floor. He was vaguely aware of someone calling his name as darkness welled up and swept him into unconsciousness.