The young mage released his most powerful spell, but it did little good. The glowing sphere engulfed the old woman and just as quickly faded.
The witch hesitated a moment, recovering from the attack. The mage started backing across the clearing, looking for an escape.
“No farther,” the witch said, drawing a symbol on air. A tree behind the mage shook and and with a splintering sound bent, its branches gripping him, raising him into the air.
“Tell them to leave my work alone!” the witch hissed and the tree threw its captive up. “Alone!”
Moments passed before the witch approached the unmoving body, nudging it with her foot. There was no motion. From a pouch on her red belt she produced a handful of white powder. “Go home,” she said, sprinkling it over the mage. The body disappeared from sight.
Gerim glanced at the three men before him. “I am not an assassin. I refuse to kill for you.”
“But she has to die. You know that as well as we,” one of the sitting elders answered.
“We can force you,” another man said. “…but we would rather not have to.”
“Gentlemen, I am no longer a rookie mage. I can opt for one of your positions, if I so chose,” Gerim responded to the threat. “Please, don’t ask me to do this.”
“Gerim, understand,” the first wizard spoke again. “Maari has been responsible for the deaths of three dragons in the last year alone. Two others died the year before. At this rate there will be none left within the decade. It’s our duty to stop her. Your duty.”
A negative shake of the head was the only answer.
“Don’t you understand?” the wizard insisted. “An inexperienced mage just can not do it. We already lost two.”
“No,” Gerim stated again. “I refuse to kill.”
“You’re leaving us no choice,” the third man warned.
“Either you go or we will order your daughter to do it instead,” Nagje’, the second wizard finished the threat.
Gerim clenched his fists in defeat. “I never expected this of you. I will go, but I shall challenge your post when I return. Be ready.”
“You’re one of the few strong enough to stop her,” the first wizard spoke up. “Don’t leave us as an enemy; do it to save Makdiar’s past. Good luck, my friend.”
Gerim walked out of the great chamber in disgust.
A cloud of dust appeared on a deserted road, quickly molding itself into a man and a horse. Swinging into the saddle, the man surveyed the region, to be certain that no one had seen him appear. Not a soul was around. “Come on,” he slapped the horse’s neck, “let’s find Tench,” and the steed obediently broke into a trot.
Gerim entered the mostly empty inn lobby and approached the desk. “I’d like two adjoining rooms,” he told the bald man on the other side of the desk.
The man shuffled through a drawer, pulling out two keys.
“One will have to be large,” Gerim hurried to add.
The man again shuffled through the desk again and put two new keys before him. “It costs double,” he said.
Gerim picked up the second set of keys. “I’ll take it. Put my horse in the stables. I will bring my bags in later.”
Gerim looked out from the window of the larger room. It was located on the corner of the inn’s second story, overlooking the backs of a few houses on the north and the lightly forested fields to the east. “This’ll never do,” the mage considered the bright rays of the morning sun. The power of his magic always seemed inversely proportional to the brightness of the light. He spent the next few hours setting up his work space in the larger room. A table for enchantment in the far corner, a crystal ball in the other. The rest of the equipment spread here and there and a couple of black sheets on the windows.
Gerim was from the old school of wizards; the days when “black and white” was not “punk and punker”. He practiced a unique style of magic, wrote in a self designed script and unlike the new generation of mages, knew magic theory and its rivals. He was proud of his art and angry that some used it for fun and profit. He recalled overhearing one young mage, talking to a friend, bragging that now he can “amaze and startle his friends”. Gerim’s eyes burned with anger. In the days before…his days, individuality was the focus of all mages and whether working for purposes (considered) good or bad, one thing remained true – the quest for knowledge. He remembered that his own generation was also considered renegade. Could it be that magic was dying out? Weaker and looser as time went on.
He let the crystal ball roll from his hand and unscientifically stop in the middle of the table, almost making a statement. The glass clouded and displayed the street outside the inn. Two armored men could be seen, dragging a third, quite possibly unconscious, across the road.
“Lovely neighborhood,” Gerim scowled, watching the two individuals make their deposit in the alley and leave. The crystal ball still focused on the body. “No, no! The other way!” Gerim instructed, but the image stubbornly remained on the closeup of the man. “So he’s not just unconscious. He’s dead.”
The image did not move. “So what do you want me to do? Stop them?” No response. “All right, all right,” Gerim gave in. “Where did they go?”
The picture changed to the two men entering a different alley. Gerim watched for a moment, then stood up. “Find me something interesting to look at by the time I get back,” he instructed.
The crystal ball, though efficient in all its other jobs, had one kink: every so often it would require the user to preform a task of some sort. Whether as a required duty or as a part of the magical link, Gerim did not know. The crystal ball had been a gift from his old master, a puzzle he had yet to solve before passing it down to one of his own students.
He walked out into the street. Sunset was in full swing, throwing murky shadows into the street. Gerim found the proper alley and cautiously entered. Dark shadows hid the walls of buildings. He cast a spell, coating the inside of his cloak with a dim red glow and carefully stepped deeper in.
“…not enough,” he heard a voice about half way down the alley.
“This place is crawling with vagabonds,” a second voice responded. “Let’s find another.”
‘Cutthroats? Highwaymen?’ Gerim cautiously moved forward.
“I think three in one night is plenty, even in a town like this,” the first voice said. “I don’t want to attract attention.”
“I’ve seen no evidence of guards,” the second man answered.
“There’s a damned army camp just over the hill!”
Gerim smiled. An army would definitely be too much for a job like this. He stepped out into the dim light of the fire the thieves were sitting at. The two men, noticing him, eyed him, wondering how long he has been standing there and listening. Then one got up, drawing his sword. “Tonight it be four.”
Gerim did not move a muscle and his assailant paused before swinging. Why was this man, in view of certain death, not making a defensive stand? The sword made contact with the cloak, stopping abruptly, as if hitting solid steel. The man was so stunned, he didn’t even resist Gerim taking his sword from him.
The second man got up and slowly approached, drawing his weapon.
“It won’t be any different,” Gerim warned.
The man swung, making solid contact with Gerim. Again the sword stopped dead against the cloak.
Gerim patiently waited as the man swung a second time, with identical results, then raised his hand. A glow of light surrounded his assailants and they disappeared. “I hope this taught you something,” the wizard’s voice followed the fading figures into a dark forest, echoing like the wind in the trees.
Gerim bent down over a body lying in the tall grass. He recognized the young man as a guild apprentice. Removing a ring and a pendant from the body, he placed these symbols of rank and guild in his pocket. Deciding that the body, already damaged by animals and the elements need not be retrieved, got up to leave. Before him was a path, leading to the home of the witch he had been sent to challenge. He took a deep breath and continued down the pathway. He and Maari met before on a number of occasions, sometimes as friends, but more often as enemies.
One particular meeting stood out in his mind, when five years past he ran into Maari in Conca, in Duurom. She was after a mystical herb that was rumored to bring youth to the aged and was more than prepared to take on a village of over a hundred, all of whom willingly died to protect their treasure. Maari got the herb and a number of subjects to use in her magic and Gerim felt pain for the scorched country side left behind.
That was the first time Gerim’s guild took a real interest in the old witch. It was a battle in which he lost two close friends. Sometimes Gerim believed he could strangle Maari with his bare hands, given the opportunity, but each time he remembered his old master’s dying words, urging him to respect life above all other possessions. It was the turn of events and not the direct action that was to decide fate. He wondered how the two thieves he dispatched the previous evening were doing. He sent them off to the region up north, near a frontier town he heard off; a city by the name of Dargon. The thieves were sent there to die.
Gerim felt that the punishment offered was enough. Perhaps the two men would change their ways after meeting a wizard, or perhaps they would be caught at their own game. Justice was usually harsh in frontier towns, even when administrated by the local law. If they died, it certainly would not be by his hand and he felt as if he definitely gave them an opportunity to change their lives in a new place. Hopefully new to them, anyway. It would be new to Gerim if he ever chose to go that far north on Cherisk.
Gerim glanced at the morning sun and judging by its position, turned sharply east. His crystal ball had given him solid directions earlier in the morning and Gerim was confident he was on the right path. His confidence, however, lasted only so far as finding Maari’s home. He had no idea of what to do once he got there. He stopped in mid stride and with a sigh leaned on a tree, trying to reason out his plans. He wasn’t going to kill Maari. He knew that. Perhaps he could make a deal or trick her into a compromise. Then he remembered Conca and sadly shook his head. Maari did not listen to reason. There’s no hope that she would start now.
Gerim stomped around the tree, observing an unnatural bend in the trunk. He noticed a hard crack in the bark, with sap hardening in it, nature providing its own cure. He touched it, wondering what catastrophe would cause this damage to a tree easily three times his waist span around and at least five times his age. Seeing that the tree would soon die from the loss of sap it was sustaining, he cast a spell, pulling the splintered bark together. The wound lessened, hopefully giving the ancient tree a chance to survive.
An animal cry not far away attracted his attention and Gerim looked up from his work. A laska stood a hundred feet away, watching him hungrily. Gerim wondered why the animal bothered to give him a warning, but wasted no time casting a ward around himself. The animal paused, still looking at him with hunger, but dared not to come any closer to the unnatural light. These large cat-like creatures were never known to be free roaming and Gerim assumed he was getting closer to Maari. No one but a witch would keep a laska around, roaming free.
He confidently turned his back on the beast and continued his journey. A brown roof soon appeared through the dense cover of the leaves and moments later he came out in a small clearing, facing a mud colored hut. It took Gerim a few seconds to size up the area. The hut was weather-worn, as if it has gone unattended for months on end. The clearing was somewhat more hospitable. It was filled end to end with short green grass, still sparkling with the morning dew. A few well worn trails appeared to cross the clearing, leading to and from the woods. A large black cauldron stood supported on a structure of bricks, on the left side of the house. On the other corner of the house he saw a table with grasses and herbs laid out for drying. It took him a little longer, but Gerim finally spotted a plainly dressed old woman standing before the hut, almost blending into the background. Her hair was grey and face wrinkled. Her right arm quivered with the twitching of old age. Could this be Maari? She should have been younger after her attack on Conca.
The old woman in turn eyed the newcomer with suspicion. He was tall, conservatively dressed and for some reason made her feel uneasy. “What is your business?” she finally demanded.
Gerim eyed the surroundings again. This had to be Maari. Everything was her. He took the risk, drawing himself up to his full height. “I am here to give you an ultimatum, Maari. Your magic is damaging this world. It must stop.”
Maari’s lip twitched. “Who are you?” her senile voice asked him. She still did not recognize her old enemy, although the man looked familiar. “Who are you to tell me what to do?”
Gerim stepped closer to Maari. His footsteps fell sure in the moist spring grass. “I was sent…”
“Marat!” the witch exclaimed, recognizing him at last. “So they finally sent a man to fight me. Well, let me tell you, I killed two sucklings and if I have to, I’ll kill you.”
Gerim did not back down. “I was sent here to warn you. Let the dragons be and the Guild will overlook you.”
Maari’s grey skin turned red. “You haven’t learned, have you? I don’t fear your Guild. I can take all of you on!”
“Maari,” Gerim continued calmly, “I am not here to question your talents. I am telling you to stop killing the dragons. You are upsetting the balance of nature.”
“Go tell your masters the answer is no!”
“That answer is not acceptable,” he stated again. “By killing the dragons you are undermining your own efforts. If not for Makdiar, then for yourself, don’t kill them. At this rate they won’t last a decade. Then what will you do?”
“I won’t need them after that,” she insisted.
Gerim paused. Something, somewhere clicked and it all suddenly made sense. The herb, the dragons. Maari was on a quest herself! “You’re after immortality!” he accused her, taking a bold step forward. “You’re after dra…”
Maari’s hands came up. “Let me be!” she hissed. “Let my research be!”
Gerim smiled, though lacking the confidence he felt he needed. “I’ll let you be. But I won’t let you ruin the world I live in.” He quickly turned and walked to the glen he came from, stopping a little short of the tree line. “That legend is only a myth, Maari,” he hesitated before entering the cover of the trees, “and if it’s true, I won’t let you prove it.” He entered the forest, hurrying to leave the crazy old woman behind. It wasn’t only youth she wanted. The old witch was after immortality itself and she was slowly putting the magical puzzle together.
Gerim rushed blindly into the forest, turning over plans in his mind, trying to think of a way to insure a swift victory, but nothing stood out as a miracle solution. Yet, he could not let the witch live; he knew that now.
He stopped in a small grassy clearing, taking in the environment. His mind relaxed. He had a laboratory set up in Tench. That was enough. Maari would not do much harm in the next few days. He’d find a method to stop her soon enough.
Gerim prepared to cast a spell, when from deep in the trees he heard voices.
“Where are you going?” a female voice asked.
Then the same voice called out. “Hey!”
Gerim quickly moved through the brush to see what was up.
“There!” he finally saw an armored man pointing into the knee deep grass. Stepping behind a tree, he observed a young woman, also clad in armor, following the man.
Gerim was about to step out of his cover, when a muffled hiss made his hair stand on end. He glanced up, only to see the laska he encountered on the trail not long ago.
The laska sat on a branch, some twenty feet above the wizard, hungrily looking down. Gerim quickly produced his pendant, stepping away from the tree. A barely audible incantation coated the ground and lower trunk with a musty green glow. The laska quickly jerked back.
“If not for the trail ending, we’d miss this all together,” the man’s voice sounded from beyond the trees again.
The wizard smiled. ‘I hope you appreciate what I just did for you.’
“Why does the trail keep going past here, if it leads nowhere?” the girl wondered aloud, looking in the direction from which she had come.
“Perhaps Maari is a recluse,” the man shrugged in response and Gerim’s smile deepened. ‘How will you pay me?’
“Not knowing to find anything, most people would probably turn back,” the man added. He was carefully studying what began seeming like a path to Gerim.
“You think this leads to the place?” the girl asked.
“It leads somewhere,” her companion answered, finally deciding to try the path.
Gerim stepped behind the tree, making a shushing noise to the laska above him, as the two travelers passed not ten yards away.
‘Perhaps we’ll meet again one day, so you can repay me,’ the wizard’s thoughts trailed the couple, as they disappeared in the trees. He turned to the tree and looked up at the laska. “And you… a few hours up there and you’ll love ground like you never have before!”
The wizards merry laughter echoed through the forest, even after he disappeared in a flash of light, leaving the bewildered animal staring at the glowing ground below.