T he sight could have been described as beautiful if not for the screaming, the flying guards and the carnage. A handcart full of fresh produce rose slowly to a zenith in a mesmerizing arch only to tumble down and get batted across the market by a large claw with an angry, scared crab connected at the end. In a relatively short period prey had turned to predator due to an over-zealous fishmonger.
Vable Cortinas tried to filter out the screams of the dockworkers, merchants and guardsmen, hoping to gain an insight on the large crab tearing through the market. Reginald, the over-zealous fishmonger, lay next to Vable losing blood rapidly from his severed legs. The healers were trying to stem the flow but it was a futile effort.
“What did you do? A spell, some form of potion or powder? What was it?” Vable was interrogating Reginald and trying to keep him secure for the healers.
Reginald was screaming out in pain while trying to tell the mage what had happened. “P–p–p–pock–”
“Pock … pocket?”
Reginald screamed some more and nodded. The mage patted him down searching for a pocket. Inside his vest was a sealed leather pouch. Vable opened it gingerly to reveal a glittering, orange powder. Of all the times to be without his brother and sister. At least he had the reagent responsible for the ten-cubit crustacean.
And at least Reginald had the good sense to try the ill-gotten dust on one crab and not the whole catch. Not wanting to risk more exposure he cut the side of the vest off and folded it around the pouch.
“Hey!” he shouted at the nearest healer. “No one touches this. Keep it safe. I’ll be right back.” Vable removed his ebony fighting sticks from the small of his back and charged the crab headlong.
The crab snapped its massive claws toward the nearest guard, missing the nimble man. The guardsman was able to stick his polearm under its eye into the only exposed soft tissue the beast offered. The crab writhed violently and snapped the shaft then charged the guard.
Vable called out to the wind with his will, increasing the arc of his jump to land on the beast’s back. The mage changed the nature of his weapons, elongating them into fine points and pierced the rigid exoskeleton. The ebony spikes grew quickly, burst through the crab’s chest and anchored a few cubits into the ground.
The abrupt stop sent the mage flying into the running crowd. The crab let loose a shrill, whistling scream while trying to dislodge the spikes.
“Where were you a mene ago?” Sergeant Eltyn Griebel scoffed.
“Yeah, yeah.” Vable rolled his eyes and made for the crab again.
“Tow the line or get out of the way!” Eltyn scolded.
“You want to do this now?” The mage asked. Eltyn’s eyes cut through Vabel.
“Let’s go! Get the nets and ropes,” she called out to her men, setting the argument aside.
Seeing the renewed mob the crab slammed its body down then stood up quickly. It did this a few more times finally removing the spikes from the ground.
The charging team of guards turned into the retreating team of guards at the sight the freed crab. Vable was too annoyed to be scared. This mess was getting out of control; time to be a team player had run out.
A guard was thrown wide and landed hard next to Vable upsetting the contents of a fish stand. A buckler fell free of the guard’s hand and rolled to the mage’s feet.
“The universe provides.” A sly grin danced on his lips. He hefted the buckler, testing the weight. Vable focused his mind on the small shield feeling the strength and structure of the steel at the molecular level. Removing his hands from the buckler he bent and stretched the metal as it hovered out in front of him.
Keeping its mass, the small disc grew out wide and formed small teeth along the edge. Vable got it spinning rapidly then aimed it at the crazed crustacean just as it charged him. With a mental command the disk raced to meet the oncoming crab right between its pointy eyes, severing the crab into two neatly measured halves.
A wave of gore washed over Vable, a cheer erupted from the crowd and the mage fell to his hands and knees.
The mage’s entire body was numb. He could hear everything and nothing all at once. Tapping into the ethereal rhythm pounding its way through the living world was like diverting a waterfall through a teacup and when he did it, pieces of himself would be stripped away.
He was watching the buckler spin on its axis in the dirt, back to its original shape. Around and around, it headed into degraded motion until it finally stopped. As if synchronized, Vable found his footing and regained control over his body then gathered his fighting sticks and the buckler and walked delicately toward the booth the guard landed in.
“Are you okay?” Vable helped the young man to his feet.
“I will be.”
“Thanks for this.” Vable handed the guard his buckler then walked past a few of the other guards who were unsure about how to react toward the powerful mage.
“I’ll catch up with you at the House. That,” he thumbed to the corpse, “gets hauled to the stables.” He absently took the torn vest from the approaching healer without halting his pace away from the carnage. He caught the attention of a passing carriage boy.
“To the Old Guard House.” Vable slumped into the seat and set his head back, closing his eyes leaving the scene and fuming guards behind. “There’s an extra Royal if you take the long way.” The boy set off at an eager pace. Vable’s nose started to bleed and he was racked with the quivers, the little aftershocks from overexerting his talents.
The boy eventually bore the mage to the Old Guard House close to a bell later. To get to the retired stables the Esoterics had been stationed in, he had to walk through the main courtyard. Part of him resented having to walk through the gauntlet of guards who accumulated in the yard. The stares and whispers he had expected, but they still stung a little. As usual, today there was a group of guard who had just completed their tour meandering in the yard engaged in a riotous conversation.
“Look, that’s what I was told,” one said.
“Sure it is,” another replied.
“Who came up with the name anyhow? The Esoterics? It’s ridiculous,” a tall man asked.
“You mean the Mess-oterics, more like,” the first answered.
“Straight.” There was an explosion of laughter that was abruptly cut short once they saw Vable. On any other day he would have let it go, but the war with the crab was still fresh on his patience.
“Don’t stop on my account. Please continue,” Vable said calmly.
“Morning,” one replied uncomfortably.
“‘Messoterics’. Clever, that.” Vable didn’t curb his annoyance.
“We were just having a bit of fun.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Carry on.”
“It’s nothing, really.”
Just then a wagon loaded with half of the crab Vable killed rolled through the gates. All eyes went wide with awe and fear. The driver of the cart stopped in front of the men.
“Hey, where’s the Esoterics quarters? I was told to deliver this there.”
Vable pointed. “Keep going back; it’s the stable on the left. Where’s the other half?”
“We’ll have it loaded and delivered later this afternoon.”
“Straight.” He turned toward the guard. “Yeah, I did that.” He stared them down with a spiteful glare then walked to the stables.
Tanbry and Arvyn were standing outside equally stunned by the corpse.
“Busy day?” Tanbry asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now. Arvyn take this.” He handed his brother the wrapped up vest with the mystical powder. “Find out what it is and be careful with it. Tanbry see if this creature is safe for consumption and do what it is you do, logging it all and etcetera. I’m taking a nap.” The weary mage walked to the back of the stable to his hammock and collapsed.
It was bells later when Vable finally woke up. His armor and clothes had been stripped from him. He hated waking up nude. Tanbry no doubt couldn’t leave well enough alone.
“At last, the king of beasts awakes,” Dyann Taishent stood in the doorway of the stall Vable took for his bed. Dargon’s preeminent mage had been appointed the Esoterics liaison upon their inception.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Vable motioned with his hand toward the water skin hanging next to the old mage.
“Dargon isn’t that big. News of the crab beast and the mighty mage has already ripped through the town and back again.” He tossed Vable the skin.
“Hazzah,” he replied flatly.
“Single-handedly no less.” Dyann laid a judging eye on the oldest Cortinas sibling.
“Don’t give me that look. I know you and Kalen want us to be integrated into the guard but that’s just not going to work. You should have seen them out there today.” He took a long pull from the skin. “A bunch of rabid monkeys on opium. It’s a testament to blind luck that more people didn’t die down there. No one took charge to unite the guard and no one listened to me. What was I supposed to do?” He took another drink.
“I’m sure you handled it the best way you knew how. I’m not questioning your methods.”
“Just pointing out my flaws.”
“You and your siblings have been working with the guard for nearly a year now. The honeymoon is over,” Dyann said.
“Probation, trial period. Honeymoon sounds less hostile.” Dyann smiled.
“If you say so.” Vable drained the water from the skin.
“Where are your brother and sister?”
“Around, I’m sure. Did you come down here just to fawn over me?”
“No, we’re meeting with Kalen today.”
“That’s today?” Vable felt completely lost.
“Find my pants.” He peered down under his hammock while Dyann looked around quizzically and slightly embarrassed once he learned Vable was nude.
“I thought I heard you talking,” Tanbry said, coming around the corner. She carried a fresh change of clothes in her arms. “Your other clothes were vile.”
“Yeah.” He held his arm out for the clothes, which were summarily thrown in his face. “You’re a shining ray of sunshine, Tanbry.”
“I know,” she said over her shoulder as she passed Arvyn coming into the stall. “The beast awakens,” she told her brother.
“Hey, you’re up.” Arvyn smiled.
“That powder you gave me was something else.” Arvyn’s eyes were always lit with mischief, there were just varying degrees of the light that danced in them.
“Where is it and what did you do?”
Arvyn scoffed, indignant. “It’s safe, I swear. And I resent the insinuation in front of our esteemed guest –”
Vable glared at him through his eyebrows.
Arvyn laughed, “I jest. I didn’t do anything … well, anything I regret.”
“Arvyn –” the elder sibling started.
“Hang on. It’s a simple yeoman’s fertilizer with some inert crystallized dust ground in and magically enhanced to affect fauna as well as flora. The growth is tightly related to the amount of powder used. I went and visited the fishmonger to see if I could get any more information, but he had succumbed to his wounds. So I went to his shed at the docks and I was able to find a ladle he used to apply the powder. The amount was quite excessive. I took what information I had and calculated the growth of the crab and estimated the powder to growth ratio and made this.” He pulled out a fist-sized apple with a smile.
The triumph was lost on Vable and Dyann.
“An apple?” Vable asked, skeptical.
“This is a cherry from the trees out back.”
Now the two mages were impressed.
“Yeah, right?” Arvyn’s smile oozed tomfoolery.
“Please tell me this is the only thing you tested,” Vable sighed.
“It is. The powder didn’t have that long of a shelf life and it seems inert now. I need to test smaller amounts for the best way to dispose of the rest.”
Vable stood from the hammock dressed. “I’ll be back in a bell or two. We’re meeting with Darklen. Until otherwise notified, you and Tanbry are not going solo on any tours with the guards.”
“Why not?” Tanbry called from across the barn. Her acute ears were always tuned in to eavesdropping.
“I’ll discuss it later,” he called out to her. “We’ll talk when I get back.” Vable followed Dyann out through the stables.
The courtyard was vacant except a few ground squirrels engaged in a turf war. Dyann was speaking to Vable, but the younger mage was caught up in the squirrel drama and didn’t hear him.
“Where are you?”
Vable looked to Dyann. “What?”
“Are you listening to me?”
“No, not really. I’m still trying to clear the cobwebs.”
“You pushed yourself with that crab,” Dyann surmised.
“I’ll be fine.” Vable had stopped walking. Low-grade vertigo wobbled his vision while a sliver of pain shot through his ear. He reached out to grab Dyann’s arm then doubled over with nausea.
“Fine? You call this fine?”
“You are not your father, Vable. Your father was unique in the way he harnessed the world around him and even he paid a price in the end.”
“It was a rare occurrence at the dock. Things got desperate, calling for a more … creative … approach.” Vable found his horizon and stability with a large breath. “I’ll be alright.”
“You have developed other methods that are just as effective and not nearly as costly.” Dyann resumed their walk into the Guard House. “Pickling your brain with this dangerous approach to the arcane is a terrible way to live.”
They walked through the quiet halls toward Lieutenant Darklen’s office, their steps echoing softly.
“The other cost you may have missed is the current and very rigid, established order.”
“I’m not following.”
“The showmanship at the docks, flaunting this unchecked power about puts the three of you in a precarious position with the guard. Darklen may support the cause, but any excuse to tear down the retired stables and I’m sure he’ll take it. Get it?”
Eltyn was walking out of Darklen’s office when they arrived. She shot Vable her stock you’re-a-waste-of-flesh look she had perfected the past year whenever she looked at Vable. The mages stepped aside, making room for Eltyn to slide past. Darklen saw them through his open door and motioned for the mages to enter.
“Dyann, welcome,” Darklen offered.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Darklen.” Dyann bowed.
“Vable.” Kalen extended his right hand.
The mage grasped his wrist. “Lieutenant.”
“Lets get to it, shall we?” The three sat down almost in unison. “What happened at the docks?”
“Outside the destruction, the events aren’t that noteworthy.” Vable handed Kalen a scroll. “The fisherman’s name was Reginald Korrson. He’s been retired from the sea for a few years and sells wholesale from a shack on the docks. It seems he’s pretty stationary so whatever he got his hands on was either created in Dargon or it passed through.”
“Could this have come from the Doravin? One of their priests or mages?” Kalen asked.
“Anything is possible, yet it’s hard to determine. The leather pouch it was stored in isn’t that unique, the fisherman is dead, and no one else seems to know where he got it. We can ask the guard and shop owners to keep an eye out for more larger than life produce and animals, but we really have no leads now.”
“Very well. What else?”
“The mystical hoodoo he used to enlarge the crab is inert now and is being disposed of along with the remains of the crab. I had it hauled here to be examined and to prevent any other greedy fishermen with rocks for brains from selling it to the populace.”
“How did it get sliced in two?” Kalen looked right into Vable’s deep brown eyes.
“Neatly,” Vable stated. He returned the intense stare.
“That’s not the question,” Kalen replied.
“It’s the one you asked. If you want to say it, say it.”
“Was it necessary or were you showing off?”
“There it is.” Vable’s look was hostile.
“I think –” Dyann interjected.
“No, it’s okay, Dyann. Let him open that door.” Vable stood, as did Kalen.
“I did what I thought was necessary to stop the damned thing. The other guards spent the better part of five menes getting tossed around while the market was getting torn apart. I could either do nothing and get reprimanded for my cowardice or take action. I stick by my choice and would easily make it again.”
“I have the reports from the other men and women down there. They tell a story of a man endangering the lives of the guard and the citizens he was sent there to protect.”
“Of course, their stories must be true.” Vable rolled his eyes over his sarcastic tone.
“Ten people can’t be wrong,” Kalen argued.
“Yes they can,” Vable bit back.
“Did you or did you not release a spinning blade across the port?”
“I sent it flying a distance of ten cubits, at best.”
“And what if it had hit someone? Before or after it hit the crab?”
“Then I guess we would be having a completely different conversation, wouldn’t we?”
The two men stared each other down a moment. Dyann was sitting there being choked out by the palpable tension in the room.
“If I may,” Dyann started. “In the thick of the moment, decisions need to be made, that once given the light of hindsight and rationality may prove imprudent. Also,” he stood “I feel that, although the situation had the potential for fatalities, that there were few options given the circumstances.”
Kalen looked to Dyann then back to Vable. The lieutenant sighed, releasing stress in a calming breath remembering the main goal of the meeting.
“I need you to maintain a picture of restraint and prudence,” Kalen stated. “You may not fit in completely, I know that the guards still, after a year, resent that you are here.” Kalen took another breath. “But, if you are seen to be allowed to go rogue, as it were, and slice everything in your path unchecked, it sends a poor message. It will influence them to take matters into their own hands as they see fit.”
“So, this is about making your men look bad?” Vable smirked slightly.
“This is about you looking like a vigilante. This is about your wild arcane tactics dancing about the streets of Dargon.”
“Alright. Next time a large crustacean rips the docks apart, I’ll stay here and figure out a way to piece your guards back together.”
“That isn’t what I’m saying,” Kalen scolded.
“We were in the thick of a huge, magically induced incident that threatened the lives of many. I dealt with the creature, the situation with the safety of everyone there on the forefront of my mind and I don’t appreciate your insinuation that I wasn’t. However,” he held his hand up to a fuming Kalen, “spinning blades of death, may have been a little much around so many bystanders. I will match my amount of force more prudently in the future.”
“Good.” Kalen sat down. “Anything else I need to know about the dock incident?”
Vable sat. “No, that covers it.”
“I need to talk to you about Kiev.” Kalen’s mood had changed drastically and was now somber.
“He isn’t back, is he?” Dyann asked.
“No. But it seems he may be making his way back here. Word came to me from Armand about a mace-wielding individual who had caused a ruckus.”
“Armand? What would keep him so close?” Dyann asked.
Kalen shrugged. “There was a body of a local wizard found. No big battles or anything that had happened like last summer he was here. There was however a cache of bodies in the cellar of the wizard’s home. Armand isn’t hunting for him, they seem to view this man’s efforts as heroic when in the light of the wizard’s sins.”
“What makes you think it’s Kiev?” Dyann asked.
“I don’t know that it is, but stories of a dual mace-wielding man with an armored arm who looked like fluid metal tend to perk my ears.”
“Word coming from Armand, that’s about a sennight’s ride. Word traveling makes it about last month that it even happened.” Vable rubbed his forehead in frustration.
“True, he may not even be there, but it’s worth looking.” Kalen stood. “I’m sending you, the Esoterics and ten men to retrieve him, if he’s there.”
Vable looked up, curious. “You are sending me? I thought that you would be all over this to go yourself.”
“Any other time and I would. As it is, I can barely spare the ten men I send with you. This building Doravin issue hangs on the cusp of a full-on crisis and I must stay here.”
“When do you want me to leave?” Vable stood.
“As soon as you are ready. You’ll want men you trust, so the roster is yours to choose from.”
“I meant what I said. Despite the voices you hear, the guard look to you as an example. Maybe not directly, but even if it’s to see how you are disciplined, what I allow you to get away with. Restraint and prudence are all I ask.”
“I understand,” Vable agreed. “I’ll go make ready.” Vable left Kalen and Dyann in the office.
“Tell me this is the right choice,” Kalen asked the mage.
“It’s one of the few you have to choose from.”
“So, there is another choice?”
“Not that I see,” Dyann offered.
Arvyn carefully meted out the powdered agent onto the scale waiting for that sweet moment the scales balanced, mindful not to over fill it. The needle scraped back and forth then rested on the red line. He smiled.
He took the tray in his hand and quickly carried it to the pestle and dumped it in with the rest of the powdered ingredients he was combining. Once satisfied he took the pestle to the blown glass orb filled just under the brim with water and dumped it in. A red iridescent glow lit up his face from the orb.
“That’s it. Get your face in nice and close so when it blows up it can kill you quickly,” Tanbry, his sister, mocked.
“Go stick your nose in a book,” Arvyn bit back.
“Stop it. You’re both pretty, now knock it off.” Vable came into the makeshift library. “Grab your gear. We are headed to Armand.”
“What’s in Armand?” Arvyn asked. He put his pack on and tied it snug around his waist.
Tanbry and Arvyn stopped in their tracks.
“Uh. I hate to be the naysayer, but, I don’t want to,” Arvyn said slowly.
“And I hate to give Arvyn’s naysaying credibility, but, me neither.” Tanbry set her pack on the table.
“Look, he’s a mage. One man. One against the three of us and ten soldiers. Those are pretty decent odds.”
“Oh,” Arvyn shrugged and started to put his gear together.
“Wait. No.” Tanbry was still unconvinced.
“Don’t do this now.” Vable started tossing his gear into a pile next to his pack.
“I still have nightmares from last summer when we had to clean up his mess,” Tanbry insisted.
“Tanbry. Nothing is going to happen to you. I won’t let it. You’re there to help investigate and document. I need you, you are a crucial member of our team.”
“I need you to pull the notes and look for a way to transport him back. If I remember he was fond of changing his material form.”
“And if any of us get knocked around, you’re the only one with a healing background,” Arvyn stated flatly.
“Arvyn!” Vable shot him a look.
“What? Very important role, healer. Who else is going to fix my boo-boos? I have delicate features and need to be pampered by the best.” His smile was infectious and Tanbry was laughing in spite of herself.
“Come on. A grand adventure awaits us. Get your stuff.”
Tanbry sighed and then started to fill her pack.