DargonZine 18, Issue 4

Liberated Hope Part 2

By: Ornoth
Yuli 26, 1018 - Yuli 30, 1018


This entry is part 6 of 27 in the series The Black Idol

Anarr looked down at the shards of milky white crystal in his hand. Only moments before, they had been a single translucent spherical green stone that was sensitive to the presence of magic. The gem acted like a lodestone, and in the vicinity of the stone idol in the cave behind him, it had resonated so strongly that it had actually given off a feeble light of its own. Anarr, in more than a century of arcane study and practice, had rarely seen a stone register such powerful magic.

The magus had travelled to Northern Hope, the primary settlement in the newly-founded royal grant of Nulain, with the intent of locating the cause of the region’s remarkable ill luck, removing it, and then returning it safely to Parris Dargon, the unscrupulous young upstart who had contracted his services. Anarr had traced the curse to a cave near the peak of an isolated mountain called the Mariencap, then to the statue, but had yet to figure out what the idol was, or how to properly ward it so that it could be safely moved and brought out of the mountains and back to Dargon.

His first experiment had been with the lodestone. Its greenish glow had indicated the presence of powerful magic. He’d decided that the next step would be to use his magic to ward the lodestone from the effect of the curse, because if he was successful, the stone would visibly prove that the idol’s malevolent power could be contained. It would also confirm Anarr’s ability to neutralize the curse.

The complex warding spell had gone well initially, but his casting had been interrupted by a sudden wave of heat and nausea. When his vertigo had passed, Anarr had discovered that the lodestone had cracked and broken into a pile of milky white shards, rather than the smooth, translucent green orb it had formerly been.

Now standing outside the cave’s entrance, Anarr reflected on the statue’s power. For days, it had thwarted his every attempt at spellcasting. Back in the village of Northern Hope, twenty leagues distant, he’d tried to use a Daeltis hawk to scout out the area, but the curse had confused the bird such that it flew directly into the wooden paddle of the town mill’s water wheel. It had also caused a sudden gust of wind to blow a tree he was felling toward his pack animal, nearly striking the beast. The previous evening, it had augmented a simple foxfire he’d cast in the cave into a flash of light that had blinded him for several menes.

“And now this,” he muttered as he let the now-useless fragments of the precious lodestone fall to the ground. The idol was much more powerful than Anarr had thought, but the lodestone had been, after all, only his first attempt to ward an object from the mysterious curse. It might be a good idea to test something else. He could always use a small mammal; they were plentiful and never missed, and were close enough to human physiology to make them a good indicator of what might happen to a man.

Still standing at the foot of the cliff outside the cave, Anarr let his mind cast about for a nearby squirrel or chipmunk. Finding one near at hand, he touched its mind just enough to prod it toward his position at the cave’s entrance. It wasn’t until the beast slinked out of the bushes that Anarr discovered that he’d summoned a brown rat from one of the crevices in the rock wall. Still, it would suffice.

He put the rat into a sound sleep, then brought it into the cave, where his lantern still burned. Forty paces from the vine-obscured entrance there stood a large pedestal and the jet-black stone statue of a man sitting cross-legged, a sword across his lap, screaming his pain toward the heavens.

Anarr placed the rat on the uneven floor of the passage, scoring the ground around it with a sharp stone, and began chanting and gesturing. Anarr half expected the sudden rush of heat that had accompanied his previous spell’s collapse, but it never came. At the end of half a bell, the casting was complete. Anarr released the animal from its sleep, and it quickly scuttled down the nearest bolthole.

Anarr watched suspiciously. While he couldn’t be entirely sure, it appeared that the warding spell had been successfully cast. The next step was much more ambitious. Rather than keeping the idol’s magic out of a very small area around a stone or an animal, ultimately Anarr would have to focus on containing the curse within a very small area: the statue itself. The principles were complementary, so the spell would be similar, but would have to be an order of magnitude more powerful. Yet the rat-casting had gone off well, so he decided to test himself against the statue directly.

Again Anarr began tracing magical symbols on the floor and walls around the dais. About himself he arranged six candles, each of which contained the blood of a different animal mixed within its wax. Once more he chanted long sequences of arcane syllables. Because he wanted the warding to be absolutely secure, Anarr put all his skill and puissance into the casting.

Outside the cave, the sun had passed its zenith when Anarr completed the most demanding spell he’d performed in years. He had just had time to catch his breath when he was lifted and blasted from his feet by a sudden wave of intense heat and the accompanying sense of vertigo. The blast snuffed out his lantern and blew it clear of the cave, leaving him blind in the darkness. He could hear the impact of large stones striking the ground outside. The warding hadn’t held.

He crawled on his hands and knees back toward the light at the cave’s entrance. Once outside, he sat down on one of the stones that had just fallen from the cliff behind him. The cliff formed one wall of the shallow box canyon that contained the cave, a rushing mountain stream, and what had once been a small settlement.

Frustrated, Anarr knew there was nothing else he could do at the cave. He had no idea what to try next, and even if he did, he was mentally and physically exhausted. However, he did have the handful of books he had brought with him, which he’d left at his campsite in the little settlement. He’d return thence and see if they held any clues about the nature of the screaming warrior idol. And while he was there, he would also look through the one surviving building: the ransacked home where the night before he’d seen the remains of a presumed monk who had died a few years earlier. Perhaps he would find a clue to point him in the right direction.

***

The building stood just as it had when Anarr had first arrived at the settlement a few bells before. A single standing hut, complete with thatched roof, sat anachronistically amongst a number of ruins that showed no sign of having been inhabited for a century or more. Yet someone — a monk of some sort, judging from the brief glimpse he’d taken when he first arrived at the settlement — had lived here until about three years before.

Obviously, the first thing to do was to learn what he could from the indelicate corpse that lay in the building’s main room.

It wasn’t that Anarr was squeamish, heavens, no! It was just a natural discomfort with death that caused him to hesitate. For ten of his sixteen decades, he had lived his life for one purpose: to avoid death. He’d known even as a headstrong teen that one good way to do that was to avoid the places where death had been. One didn’t stay healthy and strong by associating with corpses, madmen, and the diseased!

Of course, that had been ages ago, and Anarr had learned many better ways to keep death at a distance. He’d done well, living three men’s lifetimes before that awful day when he’d been forced to grudgingly make his peace …

Only to wake the next day to discover the awful trick that had been done to him. Waking from his deathbed, Anarr had inexplicably found himself restored to his youth and vigor. He still had no idea whether his friend Dulas was right in believing that it had been due to the intervention of his fictitious one god. Anarr himself had spent three of Dulas’ lifetimes studying spells and incantations to keep death at bay, yet somehow he had been duped, restored to the body of his youth. Worse yet, Anarr had woken to find one of those morbid Stevenic nooses hung symbolically around his neck.

In the eight years since then, Anarr had redoubled his research efforts, both to find the explanation for what had been done to him, as well as to preserve his precious, newly-regained youth. That was certainly worth clutching onto, yet he was now about to violate one of the first rules he had ever learned about self-preservation. Therefore it was with some trepidation that Anarr crossed the threshold and passed into the company of the dead.

Anarr laid his cloak on the floor and very quickly rolled the body, now little more than bones tangled in some rotting clothes, onto it. He breathed shallowly, to shield himself from the noxious vapor of death. Then he dragged the whole distasteful bundle outside, where he could examine it in the open air, rather than the fetid atmosphere of the dwelling.

There wasn’t much to see, thankfully. The monk’s robe was torn and stained with black patches of old blood, indicating a violent death. Anarr also noted from the pelvis and skull that the priest had been a man, but there was nothing else worth noting about the body or its possessions. He dumped the unwholesome passel in the garden behind the building, and shuddered when he thought about reclaiming his cloak. He left it and turned back to the hut.

Freed of the penumbra of death, the building took on more of an air of mystery to Anarr. The common room was a shambles. An otherwise sturdy-looking table lay cock-eyed and broken in one corner. Stools were scattered around like driftwood after a flood. A nest of hornets had taken up residence in the rafters above the one shuttered window.

In a pantry, dried herbs hung from the rafters and a well-used mortar and pestle stood atop a barrel of beets. Another barrel was full of potatoes that had sprouted and then died, leaving behind an eerie tangle of white vines.

A straw bed that was now sodden and infested with bugs took up one end of the narrow bedroom. At the opposite end of the room, where a window faced west, were the remains of what could only be described as a little shrine. A stone shelf was built into the wall below the window, and strewn about the area were objects that, to Anarr’s mind, signified religious observance.

On the floor to one side of the shelf was a small blue and black piece of clay pottery that had once held blood of some type, judging from the burgundy-black stain next to it on the floor. Beside that was a colorfully-patterned cloth that would have just covered the shelf’s smooth surface. On the floor closer to Anarr was a piece of wood that had been carved into the shape of a warrior from ancient times. Its figure and attire seemed reminiscent of the statue in the cave, yet this rendition had been made with a smooth, blank surface where the warrior’s face would have been. And hidden underneath the shelf, back so far that it normally would escape notice, was a book.

Pulling the book out, Anarr flipped to the first page and struggled to make sense of the difficult script. Looking about a little furtively, he brought the tome outside and set it atop a basalt block to examine it in the daylight, using the former bit of wall as if it were a lectern.

An unadorned brown leather cover encompassed several stitched vellum signatures: a simple codex that one could obtain in any proper city. Script filled about a third of the pages in an ornate but spidery hand. The letters were Beinisonian, but archaic. Still, Anarr had been educated in the south, and could decipher the substance of the writing, albeit with some time and effort due to the knowledge that had been robbed from him when he had been restored to his youth. The book seemed to contain rituals for the worship of the Beinison war-god Gow, and the last few pages had been ripped from the tome.

A realization began to come together in Anarr’s mind. The Beinisonian script, the religious paraphernalia, the warrior carving: this was a long-isolated settlement devoted to the worship of Gow! The thought of Beinison, of course, reminded Anarr of his old friend Kebero, who was one of the foremost authorities on the Beinison Empire.

Anarr loped over to the packs he’d unloaded from his donkey the night before. Among his magical books and equipment he had brought a copy of Kebero’s “History of Beinison”. He found the description of Beinison’s religion and read the all-too-brief passage. It told a myth of how the god Amante had coveted Gow’s mate Alana, goddess of the night, and taken her by trickery and force. In the ensuing confrontation, Gow had struck Amante in the face with his sword of flame. Amante had been stripped of his position and fated to forever wear a mask to hide his shame and disfigurement.

Kebero went on to describe Gow’s typical appearance as a powerful warrior with a flaming sword. Yet he also observed that the Beinison had always strictly forbidden any depiction of Gow’s facial features because they believed Amante, in his vengeance, had laid a curse on Gow.

That explained the faceless carving he had discovered in the monk’s dwelling, but Anarr was confused. Although its similarity to the carved icon was obvious, the statue in the cave still didn’t make sense. Had he perhaps stumbled upon an ancient image that actually portrayed Gow’s visage? To find such a totem here, in the back woods of Baranur, far away from the Beinison Empire, was almost unbelievable. Helping his employer solve Northern Hope’s curse might be a minor matter, for Anarr would become renowned as the person who finally gave a face to Gow! His friend Kebero would be astonished!

But the question remained: was there a way to nullify the baleful influence the statue exerted over everything in the vicinity?

Anarr set Kebero’s book aside and returned to the monograph of Beinison ceremonies he’d found in the ill-fated monk’s dwelling.

***

As late afternoon approached, Anarr sat cross-legged before the statue of Gow. Before him was the small blue and black dish that he’d found in the settlement’s last standing building, and a piece of the blood-stained robe worn by its former occupant. Anarr had made all the preparations to perform a warding ceremony except this one that he was about to undertake.

Anarr had spent bells deciphering the monk’s book, but it had indeed linked Amante’s curse with the idol and even mentioned the kinds of misfortunes that had befallen the unlucky settlers in Northern Hope. Better still, it had described a ceremony that could free the statue of Amante’s curse.

However, one of the components of the ceremony was the fresh blood of a devout priest of Gow. There was no such priest within five hundred leagues, but without it, the warding would presumably fail. The closest Anarr had to fresh blood was his own, however he was anything but a religious man. In his search to prolong his life, he’d studied all the beliefs known to man, and none had offered him any demonstrable truths, including the worship of the Beinison pantheon. If the magic required the blood of the faithful, his own blood would certainly not suffice.

The only follower of Gow he could find was the long-dead monk who had lived in this settlement. However, a thought had come to Anarr: if his own blood could provide the vitality, and the dried blood from the monk’s robe could provide any necessary faithfulness, it might fulfill the spell’s requirement. He just needed to figure out how to infuse the one with the traits of the other. Yet that required the use of magic, and he knew very well that the idol’s curse had interfered with his ability to work magic for days.

Still, it was the only idea left to him, so he dipped the piece of clothing with the long-dried blood stain into the water contained in the pottery bowl. With enough kneading and wringing, he managed to squeeze out a very thin brown solution that hopefully would provide the needed qualities.

Next, he took the bowl and stood before the statue of the screaming warrior. Running his thumb along the edge of one sharp ivory tooth, Anarr cut his finger and added several drops of his own blood to the mixture already in the bowl.

Returning to his former seat on the floor of the cave, he made several passes with his hands over the bowl, each time putting a little more strength into the spell that would imbue his blood with the presumed faith that he lacked. Detecting no aberrations in the spell or interference from the idol, he finished his preparations.

But would it work? Unfamiliar doubts loomed in Anarr’s mind like a mountain range at night, detectable against the darkened sky only by the absence of stars.

He got to his feet and began what he hoped would be a plausible recreation of the ancient ceremony that would temporarily free the image of one foreign god from the curse of another. The appeal to Gow featured a number of chants and arcane entreaties, but was otherwise very alien to Anarr. Unlike his own magic, the ceremony was accompanied by a lengthy series of specific footsteps and complicated gestures that seemed to be half language and half dance. It had taken a long time to decipher the instructions, and they were still not very clear to him.

During the first sequence of movements, he bore a single birch switch, which he swung and moved in certain patterns, being careful to avoid getting tangled up in his robe as he twirled this way and that. As he did so, the setting sun began to cast a faint orange light into the cave, sparkling off the keen edge of the idol’s silver sword.

Next came the critical point: the blood. Anarr grabbed the blue and black vessel and approached the idol. He once more traced the idol’s razorlike tooth with his thumb, but instead of letting the resulting blood fall on the statue’s tongue, as the book had specified, he deftly substituted the magically-enhanced blood from the bowl.

He then stepped back, picked up the birch stick, and began the final part of the ceremony: another long series of movements of hands, feet, and wand.

As he did, the sun behind him continued its descent. Anarr could tell that it was close to setting, because it had turned from light orange to a deep red, but had become more direct, streaming through the cave’s entrance such that he could clearly make out his own shadow against the back wall of the cave.

As he watched his shadow’s movements, he also saw the shadow of the statue slowly growing, and it almost looked as if it were moving. Suspecting that the sun wasn’t solely the cause, Anarr looked behind him, toward the cave’s opening, but was unable to see anything but the bright red sun, setting in a rosy blur of heat haze.

Returning his gaze to the back wall, Anarr saw that the gestures of the ceremony’s dance caused his shadow to make what looked like very realistic movements. Suddenly, he realized that his shadow was enacting its own little play! Anarr’s shadow was taunting the shadow of the idol with a short blade: the birch wand the wizard bore. He watched, transfixed, as the shadow of Gow slowly stood and raised his sword against the harrying shadow cast by the mage. Anarr only had a moment to grasp that the shadow-play was mimicking the confrontation between Gow and his rival Amante, and that his shadow represented the masked god who had been dealt a crippling blow by the warrior-god Gow.

With a single irresistible stroke, Gow’s shadow-sword came down against the sword borne by his tormentor, Amante. The birch wand in Anarr’s hand snapped in half, and the wizard was slammed to the ground by an invisible blow to his face. Before he passed out, Anarr thought he saw the shadow of Gow standing triumphantly behind the black idol, whose former grimace of pain was turned directly toward him in a victorious smile.

When Anarr woke, the last twilight of evening was fading from the sky. The magus glared at the idol. The ceremony was complete, even if he hadn’t understood its nature or its violent climax until the very end. After expending so much energy, he was drained and looking forward to a well-deserved night of rest. However, there was one final task before him: to see whether the curse had indeed been lifted. The easiest way to do that would be to perform a little magic.

Feeling self-indulgent after such a challenging casting, Anarr let his mind travel over the mountainside, searching for the one beast that would best suit his purpose. Having eaten his fill and then some, a black bear rolled happily in a tangle of blackberry vines, his thick hide oblivious to their thorns. In the shadow of a mountain valley, a doe and two fawns emerged and picked their way along the driftwood-choked edge of a small lake. Then Anarr found a laska, the great predatory cat of the high forest, sleeping with his legs splayed over the sides of a tree limb.

Anarr slipped cautiously into the feline mind, careful not to trigger any of the cat’s twitchy reflexes. His host was already feeling the stirrings of hunger, and it was a simple thing to amplify this into an insistent desire to hunt. Anarr thrilled at the sensation of power and grace as he felt the cat drop to the ground in a single silent, fluid leap.

The cat knew the best spots for hunting much better than Anarr, so there was no conflict when Anarr insinuated the thought of the lake into the cat’s mind. Anarr was carried off as the laska loped effortlessly downhill alongside a noisy mountain stream.

The laska came upon the deer as they were drinking at the lakeside, and spent tense menes approaching them: each step more silent than a leaf fall, yet as taut and close to explosion as a crossbow. When the moment came, the sleek cat dismissed the fawns and chased the bounding doe, his powerful legs allowing him to close on his prey while still following her erratic, swerving attempts to flee. Anarr was transfixed as the cat demonstrated for him its amazing agility, power, and grace. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and came far too soon for the wizard, leaving him breathless and exhilarated. More importantly, after the divers problems with his magic over the past few days, this lengthy spell’s success satisfied Anarr that the warding had worked. The curse of the idol was no longer able to wreak havoc on his magic, nor the surrounding lands, including Northe rn Hope.

***

The next morning, Anarr woke well rested, and with the memory of the chase still vividly replaying itself in his mind. The day’s goal was to return to the village of Northern Hope. He hadn’t wanted anyone with him while he’d sought and neutralized the town’s curse, but now that he had successfully warded the statue, he would go back to Northern Hope and return with someone to guard the statue and an animal to bear it thence. His own donkey was already heavily burdened with his books and magical paraphernalia, and Anarr preferred to have others perform any strenuous manual labor. After bringing the idol into town, they could proceed to Kenna and then downriver to Dargon, where Anarr would deliver the statue to his employer, Parris Dargon.

However, before he could set out for Northern Hope, Anarr wanted to perform the much more modest ritual of reinforcing the warding he had established the night before. The dead monk’s notes had been quite explicit that the initial warding would dissipate in a matter of days without regular renewal, but the required rite was quite simple, really.

So Anarr found himself returning to the idol’s cave once more, bearing a handful of fustian leaves. The monk had once cultivated the bushes, but a few of the plants had gone wild and survived. The leaves wouldn’t be so large as when the monks had cultivated them, but they should suffice.

Next he would have to capture and kill a small animal. As luck would have it, a rat scurried across the overgrown path just as he was walking toward the cave, and Anarr quickly snared it in a magical grasp. The animal stopped in its tracks and looked up at him, but when the wizard approached, it bounced carelessly away from him, completely disregarding the magical restraint. He repeated the spell, reinforcing it with additional strength, but again the rodent simply bounced away again as Anarr approached.

The wizard stood in the midst of the path and swore. Had the statue’s curse overcome his warding so quickly? If so, he was fortunate to have discovered it before something more dangerous had happened. According to what he had read, the warding should have been effective for a measure of days, not merely a few bells. However, this brought his plans into question.

“Ill-begotten rat!” In the middle of the oath, a sudden revelation came to Anarr. Before he’d warded the statue, he’d first tried warding another rat such as this. Sure enough, when Anarr probed, he discovered that the rat indeed bore a masterful spell of protection. Anarr had tried to capture the very rat that he himself had made immune to magic!

“Very well, little gnaw-face. Go live your brief life, free of the interference of meddling magi.” Anarr laughed and found himself a tree rat that was more suitable for his needs.

Finally, Anarr approached the stone idol. The ritual to be performed was quite straightforward. Anarr reached forward and touched one of the statue’s ivory fangs with his thumb. The knife-sharp edge cut him cleanly, and a few drops of his blood fell onto the warrior’s midnight black tongue. As he withdrew his hand, Anarr watched as the statue slowly moved. Where once the mouth had depicted a warrior’s scream, the jaws were now agape, revealing a small opening down the statue’s gullet. Despite having expected this, Anarr remained transfixed for a moment before recalling his prepared package: the freshly killed tree rat, wrapped in fustian leaves. He placed the packet into the hollow space down the statue’s throat and carefully withdrew his hand. As he backed away, the stone portraying the idol’s mouth slowly returned to the half-ope n grimace of pain that it had borne before.

***

Two days later, Anarr supervised as his new bearer Edmond packed up the idol. His trip back to Northern Hope had been made easier by the fact that, with the curse neutralized, Anarr was free to use all his magic to sidestep several obstacles and hasten his pack animal along.

Of course, Anarr’s previous arrival in the tiny community of Northern Hope had already created a major commotion. His self-confident boast to Moritan, a bartender at the local tavern, that he was seeking the source of the curse had spread throughout the village before the next five bells had struck.

Thus, when he returned from his expedition to the Mariencap, everyone in the village had looked to him for any indication of whether his mission had been successful. Although none were bold enough to approach him directly, it was obvious to him that both skeptic and believer alike viewed his seeking a bearer as confirmation that he’d found something. When Anarr had first arrived, Northern Hope had been a community that accepted its curse as the misfortune of fate, and his presence alone had restored their hope that the curse could be lifted; little did they know that it was already done!

Because his presence was so carefully scrutinized by the locals, he’d had no problem getting his primary need fulfilled: someone who didn’t mind getting paid to get out of Northern Hope for a while. Anarr had chosen Edmond for his strength, since the statue was large, heavy, and would be awkward to move. Edmond was even enough of a ruffian to warrant the title of “guard”, although to Anarr he was little more than an unskilled bearer.

The first thing the magus had done when they had returned to the abandoned mountaintop settlement had been to check the wards he had placed on the statue. After a day and a half, there seemed to be no problems, and he repeated the brief ritual that reinforced the wards. Then he’d turned Edmond loose on the problem of moving the idol and attaching it to the back of their pack mule. Anarr had watched the brute struggle with the awkward stone figure, then drop it heavily to the stone floor. Fortunately, the statue had been undamaged, and Anarr yielded grudgingly to Edmond’s pleas for magical assistance.

When the last vestiges of dusk failed, the idol had been moved to the mouth of the cave and placed in a heavy sailcloth haversack. When morning came, Anarr had Edmond load the bulky burden onto the burro’s back, and they departed.

***

Anarr once again sped the return to Northern Hope with some minor magical assistance. Edmond didn’t even notice that fallen trees never blocked their way, nor that they found paths that skirted the usual swamps, thorny berry patches, and steep ravines. If the burro was aware of Anarr’s easing its burden, it selfishly kept any expressions of gratitude to itself.

By late afternoon, they passed the first hunters’ and woodcutters’ cabins on the outskirts of Northern Hope. Soon the news of their return — and the big, mysterious package borne by their mule — had spread. By the time the animal plodded into the center of town, a large crowd had gathered to see whatever was to be seen.

More than a score of people lined the street in front of Lord Araesto’s Cat, the country tavern where Anarr had hired a room. As he led his procession toward the inn, three men advanced from the waiting throng, intent on speaking with him.

“Greetings, milord Anarr, and welcome on your return to Northern Hope!” nodded the leader, clearly unsure how to properly address someone like Anarr; magi weren’t well accounted for in the protocols of small-town politics. “I am Kael Forester, the regent of these lands,” he continued. “I wonder if I and my fellow councilmen might share a word with you?”

Anarr studied the men briefly. Forester was tall and angular, with long, black hair that hung straight and flat. Beside him stood a stolid bear of a man who probably was the village smith. A little apart stood a wiry man whose narrowed eyes caused both his brows and his nose to wrinkle. Knowing all too well that the town’s leaders might feel threatened by his presence, Anarr fabricated a disarming smile. “Gentlemen, I am at your service.”

Kael leaned forward, obviously wishing to get his message across without alerting the entire town. “It would be best if we could speak privately. We would like to discuss your … ah, expedition before rumor sets the town in an uproar.”

Anarr nodded. What the regent meant was that he wanted to hear the story before everyone else, so that he could in turn deliver it to the town. That was fine with the magus, for there was no way Forester or anyone else would be able to deny him credit for finding and neutralizing the source of the curse. At the same time, Anarr wanted to make it clear to these petty officials that he wasn’t going to be intimidated by them. After all, they weren’t even nobility! They were mere peasants, refugees from a land their king had lost in war and written off. So he decided to let them cool their heels a while.

“Milord Forester, I appreciate your discretion, and will place myself at your disposal. However, I have spent the last five days trudging back and forth through the forest and performing magics sufficient to bind the very gods. I must see that my cargo is safely secured, and then I am going to enjoy the best meal that this backwater hovel can prepare. I hope that you and your councilmen will find it convenient to seek me in my quarters here at, say, second bell of evening?”

Squint-eyes looked put out, but Forester met Anarr’s gaze and nodded. “Indeed. Very well. Second bell.”

As they retreated, Anarr swung back toward the tavern, only to suddenly bump into another obstacle: some adolescent black-haired girl. Anarr took a moment to register surprise upon seeing that she’d painted her lips blue, and she took the opportunity to launch into a speech she’d obviously expected to deliver under different conditions.

“Anarr. I need to talk to you. I need your help to lift a terrible curse which has afflicted my family for gen–”

“Silence!” shouted Anarr, and her words were choked off, though her mouth continued to move silently for a few moments while Anarr fumed. Wherever he travelled, when people learned that he was a magus, nobles and peasants alike would come out of the woodwork, asking him to cure their petty ailments and problems. Save our crops! Heal my son! Bless my sheep! Anarr knew that every person in the world harbored hidden demands that would suddenly burst out in the presence of anyone with the least suggestion of the supernatural about them.

“I am here because I choose to be here,” he resumed. “I am not here to cure your afflictions, or those of your family, or your god-forsaken village! Nor am I bound by some silly creed to help every diseased or misbegotten peasant who crawls up to me. I have far more important works to do. Begone!”

With that, he rounded on his bearer. “Edmond! Bring the artifact up to our room.”

Edmond, flustered, stammered, “But … but the room’s on the second storey! You hired me to guard the statue, not carry it everywhere you go …”

Infuriated, Anarr spat back, “Then get one of your local buddies to do it. Or hire someone; I already gave you two Rounds! I don’t want that thing out of your or my sight until we’re safely in Dargon.”

With that, he stormed into the inn, his fists clenching and unclenching as he ascended the staircase with improbable strides that spanned four risers at a time.

***

“Have you really done it?”

It was the question that thirty score souls in Northern Hope wanted to put to Anarr. With the town’s seven councilmen stacked in the small bedroom he and Edmond had been given, it was almost time to finally give them an answer.

“Done what, Regent Forester?”

“Lifted the curse on our town, you arroga– uh, your grace,” interrupted the squint-eyed councilman he’d seen earlier that day. The regent had introduced the man as John Thomaso, the town weaver. Having bathed and replaced his travelling clothes, a dapperly dressed Anarr gifted Thomaso with a smile that the councilor might later swear contained fangs.

“Yes, milords, I have.” Anarr’s gaze slowly traversed the candlelit room where the town’s leaders uncomfortably stood. “To put it in terms you can understand, I went into the woods and discovered the source of the problems that have plagued you. High on a mountain, more than a day’s journey from here, there is an abandoned settlement that for centuries was devoted to the worship of a foreign god. Legend has it that this god, Gow, was cursed by another powerful deity, and that curse afflicted not only the graven image of Gow, but also all the lands around it. It has been the source of your longstanding misfortune.” The evening breeze freshened and caused the shutters to creak, and a distant rumble of thunder eerily punctuated his speech.

I pitted my own skill against the magic wrought by one of the most powerful gods of Beinison, and put an end to your troubles.

Seeing his audience appropriately rapt, he continued. “I came to Northern Hope to find this artifact and take it away from here. I pitted my own skill against the magic wrought by one of the most powerful gods of Beinison, and I have put an end to your troubles.”

“And how do we know that you’ve really done what you say? That the curse is lifted?” jabbed the squint-eyed John Thomaso.

Anarr smiled and leaned forward from his seat on his bed and clasped his hands, as if he were explaining something to a child. “You don’t need to believe me, Thomaso. It is done; your belief or disbelief is of absolutely no concern to me.”

“Then why did you come here? What do you hope to gain by convincing us that you’ve done us some great favor?” The candlelit room was briefly illuminated by the flash of distant lightning flaring through the cracks in the shutters.

Anarr made a show of chuckling condescendingly. He had no intention of revealing his employer’s identity or purposes to these bucolics. “It is you who are asking to be convinced, John Thomaso! I have no need to convince you of anything. Neither you nor any of your people have anything I could possibly want! Even the glory of lifting the curse is something that will be determined by whether or not the town’s fortunes change hereafter. So I have asked nothing of you. Yet it is you who have sought me out; have you not come here to ask something of me?”

Thomaso looked at his feet, at a loss. The regent stepped in. “Anarr, we are just trying to understand what you have done, so that we can stand before the people and give them the truth. Since your arrival, your boast to rid the town of the curse has been the only thing anyone has talked about. We simply want to know the truth.”

Another, much closer lightning strike caused everyone to jump. In the silence, Anarr stood and walked over to the loosely-wrapped object on a side table, then whispered, “No, regent, you do not want your people to know the truth, for the truth is more harrowing than your imagination could devise.”

With that, he whisked the blanket away to reveal the idol. The councilmen gaped at the ancient, ink black stone, the wicked silver blade, the baleful ruby eyes, and the knifelike ivory fangs. The silent, agonized scream of a god, once frozen in stone, seemed loosened to eldritch movement in the flickering candlelight, which was suddenly shattered by the dazzling glare of another nearby stroke of lightning. The accompanying thunder rolled and echoed off the surrounding hills until it seemed the entire valley was filled with the growling hunger of this long-forgotten god.

In the long silence before anyone spoke, the oncoming storm broke on the town. Rain battered the roof of the inn and the wind drove spatters of it through the gaps in the shutters.

Another councilman, named Carron, who had been silent up to now, stepped in to state the obvious. “It’s raining.” Anarr winced at the memory of his Daeltis hawk slamming into the water wheel of the man’s newly built gristmill. He also recalled that the town had been waiting anxiously for the mill pond to fill up.

“Feh,” grumbled Thomaso.

Yet Carron was visibly moved, and persisted. “John, you know as well as I do that we haven’t had rain in fortnights … Nay, months! My stream dried up a fortnight ago, and the mill pond hasn’t filled more than half. Everyone’s been grumbling that it is the curse. Now it’s raining barrels full. Whatever you think, people are going to say that Anarr has lifted the curse, and after seeing this thing,” he gestured toward the idol, “I for one am ready to admit that they may just have the right of it!”

Anarr simply watched, for he’d made it clear that the villagers’ problems were, indeed, the villagers’ problems, not his. Darvale, the village smith, at least, had seen this, too. “Well, if that’s the case, I think an announcement — and a celebration — is in order!”

Forester, their leader, turned to Anarr, who provided an answer to the unspoken question with a nod. Although his reputation would only be proven with the passage of time, it wouldn’t hurt to foster the town’s adoration a little bit.

***

As he looked out over the crowd of townsfolk the next day, Anarr couldn’t help but feel pleased with himself. Just days ago, their spirits had been broken, laboring against a constant deluge of ill fate that they couldn’t explain. Today they celebrated their liberation with newfound hope and rekindled aspirations, and every one of them knew that he was to thank for it.

The town council had declared a general holiday to celebrate the removal of the curse, and the bells of the meetinghouse and the town’s two chapels had first started up around the second bell after sunrise. Roused early, Anarr had escaped the noise and attention by taking a long solitary walk in the woods, but not before he had been cornered once more by the woman he’d run into the night before, the blue-lipped girl who had claimed her family was cursed.

The day before, Anarr had dismissed the woman with the barest glance when she blurted her demands in his face, but later he’d realized with a shock that he’d seen the harp-and-stars insignia of a bard on her belt. A bard would be well travelled and educated in the mysteries of the world. If this woman said her family was suffering under a curse, she at least deserved a hearing. And it couldn’t hurt to have a trained bard enhancing his reputation with stories of the curses he had lifted!

So when she approached him in the street that morning, he’d given her the opportunity to relate her story. She took up far too much of his time in getting to the point, but that had given him the opportunity to examine her in more detail. She had the vivaciousness of youth, her lips painted the same shade as her blue eyes. Her black hair was comely, if a little disheveled by the wind-driven rain. In the end, Anarr had warned her that he had urgent business to attend to, and that he’d be leaving for Kenna at midday, but that he would sit down with her to discuss the matter again after the town’s little ceremony was complete.

After that, he’d gotten away from the town and spent a couple bells in pleasant solitary contemplation. It was good to have this time to prepare himself for the inane crowds and attention that would follow.

He returned to Northern Hope around mid-morning. Although the rain from the previous evening hadn’t let up in the least, the majority of the town’s six hundred inhabitants were out enjoying the celebration. Tents of all shapes and sizes had been hastily erected out of canvas, wooden planks, burlap sacks, old woolen blankets, and any material that had come to hand.

Many of the local craftspeople had set up small booths to sell their wares, such as fabrics, quilts, and pottery. Anarr even saw one man busily carving small wooden statues that bore a rough but recognizable resemblance to the statue of Gow. No doubt his work had been informed by one of the councilmen, and he was doing quite a brisk trade.

There were also several booths giving out food. It being Yuli, the seasonal dishes were strawberries and fresh peas in milk, but Anarr also saw bread and mead being served. In deference to Ol, whose worship decreed that pork be eaten on festival days, a pig had been slaughtered and was roasting on a spit near the center of town.

Anarr had noticed people with fiddles, drums, recorders, and dulcimers playing beneath a shelter, all being led by the bard, whose name, he had learned, was Simona. Adolescents, children, and a few oldsters danced in between the raindrops, while a pair of hounds capered with them.

Then the town’s bells had redoubled their commotion, and the musicians had led everyone who wasn’t already under the big tent toward it.

Now Anarr surveyed the crowd from the base of a speaker’s platform. Far too big for the town’s meetinghouse, people still spilled out the edges of the tent and into the rain beyond. While the town leaders probably made speeches every so often, the opportunity to see a real wizard might only happen once in a lifetime, so even the housewives and children had attended.

The musicians stopped, as did the town’s bells. Anarr watched the town’s regent, Kael Forester, as he asked where certain people were. Turning to Darvale, the town’s smith and one of the councilmen, who stood next to him, Anarr asked what they were waiting for.

“Kael is waiting so that even the bell-ringers can see you.” After a few moments, Anarr saw three youths come running down the main street. Anarr wouldn’t have been surprised if even the town’s rats had come out to see him!

Forester raised his hand for quiet, and got it from everyone except a few infants and animals. Anarr thought he made an odd-looking ruler, with his thin, angular features and limp black hair, but he spoke well and with authority.

“Today is the biggest gathering that Northern Hope has seen since we settled here three years ago.” A few tentative cheers broke out, but the majority of the audience listened quietly as the regent continued. “And that’s as it should be, because today is indeed the most important day since the town’s founding. Today we celebrate the end of the curse!”

This time the entire audience joined in the cheering, which seemed loud enough to echo back from the surrounding hillsides.

“As you know, today is a general holiday. In honor of our liberation, and in honor of all of you who persisted in staying here despite setbacks and accidents, I and the council have agreed to declare this an annual holiday of celebration and thanks.” More sporadic applause was punctuated by many nods.

“By now you have all heard rumor of the young man who came to Northern Hope very quietly just six days ago. I hope we can make his departure a little less quiet. Now is the time to thank him for finding and removing the curse that has blighted our town. I give you our deliverer: the great mage Anarr!”

On cue, the magus stepped up onto the platform and, with his arms solemnly folded across his chest, let his gaze penetrate each person it fell on. Half the crowd seemed to be trying to make as much noise as possible, to show their thanks, while the other half were staring at the unique and powerful man who stood before them, as if trying to etch the memory in stone.

Anarr inclined his head to acknowledge their thanks and then stepped down from the stage before the applause had begun to slacken. When it eventually did, Forester continued.

“Anarr, as the governor of this land, I can tell you that you have saved this settlement. Your coming here will never be forgotten, and you will always be more than welcome to return as an honorary citizen and hero of Nulain.”

Anarr nodded his acknowledgement to the regent, and then began making his way out of the tent as Forester began to wrap up his speech.

“And I invite you all to see the first proof of Anarr’s work, in Carron’s Stream, which is flowing once more after drying up a fortnight ago. We believe the new mill pond will be full by tomorrow afternoon, when Carron’s new gristmill will begin operation …”

As he walked briskly back to Lord Araesto’s Cat, Anarr was joined by Simona, the young bard. At the inn, he’d relieve Edmond of guard duty and let him enjoy a little of the feasting and dancing before midday. Then they would load the statue of Gow onto the mule and begin the final portion of the job Parris Dargon had hired him to perform: bearing the idol through the mountain passes to Kenna, and then on to Dargon itself.

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