Part Four: Choice
When the child, Herrn, came to the temple for Margala’s monthly supply of Hanla’s Tears, the robed man waiting in the alcove was not the usual supplier. But, the priest accepted the large bag of coins, and handed Herrn back one just a little smaller. Herrn checked within, saw the little red-silver pills, thanked the priest, and left. No one saw the triumphant smile of the priest, hidden as it was by his deep cowl.
Herrn arrived back at Margala’s House before the empty cache of pills was noted by Margala herself. While barely 11 summers old, just a child, Herrn was street-wise, and trusted with important duties by the old woman who ran the House. One of these duties was to keep the supply of Hanla’s Tears, that dream drug, current. But, Herrn liked to use the little dream-givers himself (without paying, of course). And this past week he had overused rather badly, exhausting the supply on the morning he was to get the new month’s. He had hastened to the temple with the money given him by Margala, hoping that the old woman wouldn’t need any of the pills before he returned. That was one reason he hadn’t questioned the fact that Brother Mikl wasn’t in the alcove – he was in too much of a hurry.
The new supply was barely in its box when Margala entered Herrn’s room. She said, “Good, little one. You have returned just in time. Fix me up with five boxes, and have more ready. This is going to be a busy day.”
When Wend and his woman entered Margala’s House, Margala was ready for them. No whispering was needed – this was the sixth day they had come in, and it was the same every time. She took the money from Wend, handed him one of the little pill boxes that Herrn had given her, and gave them room 21 to use. She watched them climb the stairs, and wondered just what they did in that room. She knew that they both were Peace-Keepers in one of the upper markets, and they both had good pay, and so homes of their own. She didn’t suppose they used her House as a trysting place, though many did. Perhaps she would find an opportunity to ask Wend later – they had known each other for a long time, after all.
Je’en relaxed on the bed as she had five times so far. Wend said that this should be the last time they would need the drug – and it was true that Je’en was feeling a lot better now. Ever since the accident, she had been repressing her memories, hiding all the things that had been very special to her at one point because now she had lost them. But, since her arrival in Dargon – the completion of the “plan” that had kept her going from the accident, thru Sir Morion’s School, and to the meeting with her brother – there had not been anything occupying her time save her job, which was about as exciting as staring at a lake on a windless, grey day. So, her memories leaked to the fore, causing her nightmares. But Wend was putting a stop to that, helping her deal with the loss of her musical abilities in a rational and healthy way. It caused her to wonder just what he was doing guarding a bunch of high-class shopping stalls: such knowledge as he had used to help her was not common, nor easily won.
Wend took up his place next to the bed, and handed her the pill box, and a glass of water. She swallowed the tiny pills with the water, and laid back down.
Normally, she would feel herself relaxing under the influence of the drug, and she would fade into sleep. But, not this time. Her whole body went rigid seconds after she swallowed the pills, and when it relaxed, she found herself in a strange place. It was all grey, featureless save for misty outlines of indistinct shapes. At first, she thought she was dreaming, but this had no sense of a dream. She wasn’t awake, either, but in some strange half-state, a limbo of the senses.
She stood, and moved around in the greyness. There seemed to be walls here, in shape much like the room she had been in. There was no furniture, but the door was where it should have been, and the window likewise. Of Wend there was no trace.
She went thru the door, and into a shadowy version of the House’s upper corridor. She paced throughout the whole house, but didn’t quite date to venture outside – looking out the windows, she had found outside to be even stranger than it was in here.
She had searched the whole house and found it empty, but she decided to call out anyway, and when she did, she received a suprise. Her voice sounded normal. Normal, as in the pure, alto tones it had had before her accident, not the husky, almost gravelly sound it had settled into once the pain vanished. She tried to sing, and succeeded. She went over to a table, and leaned on her right wrist, and it didn’t give way. Now, she was certain she was dreaming – she was fully healed once again!
Wend was looking at the still rigid body of Je’en on the bed worriedly. She was very pale, and very rigid, almost deathly so, but he could see the shallow rise and fall of her breasts, and her heart was still beating, but slowly. He sincerely hoped that he had done the right thing. In the past month or so that he had known Je’en, he had come to like her. The man who had put him up to this had assured him that no harm would come to her, but seeing her now, he couldn’t be sure.
He heard the door open behind him, and turned. He said, “She is under the influence, Terkan. All has gone as planned.”
Terkan, a short, middle-aged man who dressed like a merchant, said, “Yes, I know. Your progress has been monitored. Your duty is now done. You may leave.”
“The rest of the price, as we agreed?”
“Will be delivered to you,” answered Terkan, staring avidly at Je’en on the bed.
“I want it now. We agreed. And, your assurance again that she will be unharmed.”
“What matters it to you, fool? You will be paid for your treachery, and it will not be the first time you have sold your honor for a little gold. Now leave; the money will arrive tonight.”
“What are you going to do with her? You must not harm her – she has done nothing to you. She doesn’t even know you. She hasn’t been in Dargon long enough to have injured you. No. Leave. Keep your second payment, and I will return the first. Tell me how to bring her out of this trance, and then leave. You cannot have her.”
Terkan smiled cruely, and said, “No. A deal is a deal, and this deal is done. She is ours, now, and that is that. You had best leave, and take your payment like a good little turncoat.”
Wend drew his sword and lunged, but, for all Terkan’s appearance of a middle-aged merchant, he moved faster. Wend never saw the knife flick out of the sleeve and into his neck. He fell at Terkan’s feet, dead. Terkan then turned his eyes toward Je’en, and the sword propped up against the wall. For a moment, he thought of taking it, but that was too dangerous. It had to be freely given. It was dangerous enough for him to be in this room – to have a member of the Septent present, involved directly. But, the slightly modified Hanla’s Tears that Je’en had taken had put her in a state that only a Full Adept of Jhel could penetrate, so there was no help for it. Perhaps, when Jhel’s ministry began to spread again, he could become Brother Un somewhere, instead of just Brother Tri, as reward for the risk he was taking.
So thinking, he began to put the finishing touches on his plan.
Cefn stopped shuffling the cards, cut them, and laid out the Bent Star pattern. It appeared exactly as before. Nothing conclusive!
Stifling the impulse to curse loud and long (the last time he had given vent to such oath-making, he had inadvertently leveled his previous house, and laid waste to about a square hectare of the land about it), he was about to sweep the cards from the table yet again, when something caught his eye. He extinguished the light globe overhead, to better see the cards. Yes, there, the fifth ray, last card. Trump 35, The Entwined Oak. It meant danger, and it had always been there. But, today, it was reversed – the only change in the pattern for the past week. And the Tree reversed meant imminent peril, instead of vague danger on the horizon. It was happening. Now. Je’en was in trouble.
He gathered up the cards again, and, using Trump 35 as the significator, he laid out a different pattern, a secretly developed one taught him by his master a long time ago. It told him exactly what he needed to know, and leaving it lying, he left the dark room to muster some help for his charge.
Je’en was becoming worried. This weird limbo she was trapped in was beginning to wear on her. And, there was the fact of her regained ability to contend with. It didn’t really feel like a dream at all, and she had been trained to recognize such.
She had returned to the upper room in hopes that Wend would be able to reach her better there. She was staring out the window at the swirling chaos there when she heard a sound. She turned, and saw that she was no longer alone.
“Welcome, my dear, to your heart’s desire. My name is Terkan, and I am responsible for your being here. I also have the power to let you stay here, if you so wish.”
Je’en stared at the man who had spoken. He was dressed in strangely symboled robes that glowed palely, and there was an air of mystery and power about him. She said, “What do you mean? Where am I, and why would I want to stay in such a shadowy place?”
“This is but a gateway from our world into another. In that other, you would have all of your former abilities, as well as those you have gained since the accident. And that is why you would want to stay here. I can show you the way into that other world, where you would be as you are now, fully healed and whole. There is but a small price.”
Je’en grew immediately wary. She believed the man, for there were tales of other worlds and passages between them. This limbo was not like any of the stories, but then the stories were old. She was wary for a different reason. She had obviously been led into this by a long and very twisted path, and she wanted to know why. If this man Terkan had been acting charitably, he would have simply offered her the choice for free, without all this subterfuge. What did he want, and why?
“What price?” she asked. “And what of my companion, Wend?”
“Ah, Wend. Well, he was in my employ, you see. The drug I used on you is illegal in Baranur – and very rare and expensive. Wend was well paid to get you into the proper state, but at the last, he decided that his salary for the job wasn’t enough. You see, that sword you carry is very valuable to certain people, but it has a spell on it that it cannot be taken, it must change owners by free will. My sponsors are willing to pay a large sum of money to me for this sword, some of which Wend would have gotten. But, he got greedy, and wanted it all. So, I had to kill him.”
“But, why not just come to me and ask for the sword? I have little sentimental value for it, and would sell it gladly for the right price. Why all of this?”
Terkan smiled a little nervously, and said, “Well, I thought to pay you in other kind, being a little greedy myself. When a little research revealed a certain incident in Magnus, I decided to restore to you your Bardic abilities, if you so choose.”
It almost made sense to Je’en. But, not quite. It was too devious. All of the secrecy, Wend’s supposed duplicity, the mild drug to lull her senses. There was something more. There had to be.
But, so what. Terkan was indeed offering her her heart’s desire. For, tho Wend had cured her of her nightmares, the desire to make music remained as much a part of her as ever. And it seemed that here, and (if Terkan was to be believed) in the world on the other side of this gate, she could be a bard again. Was that worth whatever the real reason behind Terkan’s maneuvering was?
Part Five: Rescue
Cefn and Mahr rode into Dargon at a gallop. They hadn’t actually ridden that far – Cefn’s home was much too far from Dargon, so they had used a little magic to help them on their way. Cefn, robed and deeply cowled, led the way at an unsafe speed through the streets of Dargon, arousing cries of suprise as they galloped past citizens.
The wizard reined in just outside of Margala’s House. He raced to the front door, Mahr behind him, and entered without knocking. They dashed past the suprised Margala, and up the stairs, down the hall, to room 21.
They entered the room without any ceremony (after Cefn unbarred it by setting a glowing hand on the knob), and Mahr looked around as her Master got to work immediately. Mahr saw Je’en on the bed – the first time she had seen their charge in the flesh. She looked much the same as in the Image Table, or Cefn’s Scrying Prism, save for the fact that she was obviously in trouble. Her whole body was rigid, with just a faint rise and fall in her chest to denote breathing. Her face, what could be seen around the mask, looked to be drawn in surprise, perhaps pain – her eyes were closed tight shut, and her mouth was a compressed line.
She turned quickly away from the body in the corner. Mahr knew who it was. She had seen Wend and Je’en together in the city in the Image Table. She was sorry he was dead – he had treated Je’en kindly – but she wasn’t sure why he was dead, or if he had had any part in getting Je’en into the vulnerable position she was in now.
The other person in the room, a middle aged man dressed like a merchant, was kneeling and sitting on his folded-under legs. His fingers were contorted into the Triple-cross sign, and his hands rested on his knees. He seemed to be concentrating, focusing on a small medallion on his lap, but his eyes were closed. His breath came as slowly and shallowly as did Je’en. Cefn had explained little – their ride had been short and hurried – but Mahr realized that the meditating man was one of the enemy. She even fancied she could feel an aura of evil about him.
Cefn said, “Mahr, south-east, quickly.”
Mahr fetched the compass from her belt pouch, and noted the requested direction, then pointed. Cefn took a small blue angle and placed it on the floor pointing where Mahr had indicated. Then, Cefn removed six other angles form a small yellow pouch, all colored red, and touched them, one at a time, to the blue one. As they came into contact with the first angle, they each began to glow, and as Cefn released them, they moved of their own accord to their proper place. When the sixth red angle had settled into place, forming, with the blue one, a seven-pointed star, the first angle also began to glow, causing a webwork of lines to spring up between all of the angles, forming a solid seven-sided figure with a seven-pointed star within.
Cefn beckoned, and Mahr joined him at the center of the figure. He asked, “Ready?” Mahr nodded, and Cefn said a word. Blue and red flame shot up from the outlines of the figure, climbing to the ceiling and blotting out the room around them. It flared for several seconds, and then it died, revealing a vastly different scene.
It was a shadowly, limbo place, vaguely resembling the room they had come from. The formerly meditating man, now dressed as a priest of Jhel, was speaking. “We don’t really have forever, Je’en. The drug you were given will wear off in time, and I don’t have any more with me. You must decide. Which will it be – keep the sword or become a Bard again?”
Cefn said, softly, “Mahr, stay within the septacle. This could get messy.” Then, louder, “Je’en, don’t listen to that man. He has lied to you. Whatever you do, do not give him your sword.”
Both parties turned at the sound of the mage’s voice. Mahr saw that Je’en wasn’t wearing her mask here, and there was no scar on her suprised face. The priest scowled, and said “Just who do you think you are? This woman can make up her own mind – leave her alone.”
Cefn ignored the man, and took a few steps towards Je’en (and out of the septacle). “Je’en, this man is a priest of Jhel. Have you ever heard of that particular cult? Well, its been outlawed for a very long time. The last remaining members of this cult are right here in Dargon, and this man is one of them. The sword you bear, that you got from the vaults of the College in Magnus, just happens to be the key to a prophecy of total world victory for the followers of Jhel, and the prophecy is not just words – if the high priests of Jhel get hold of that sword, and release what is within it, the whole world will fall to them.”
“Why should I believe you, instead of this man?” asked Je’en. She was even more confused now. If the tall, cowled man was right, the priest’s interest was explained, but she couldn’t be sure. And, if she could really enter another world, and have her heart’s desire in that world, did she care what happened in the one she had left?
“Je’en, please. You must listen to me. Just now, when he said that the drug would wear off – it won’t. You’ll be trapped in this limbo forever. Even after your body dies, your spirit will wander here endlessly. You have regained your bardic skills and whole body, but to what use? The beings who inhabit this realm need no music for entertainment – they have other amusements. Please, do not accept. He will give you nothing in return, and destroy the world in the bargain. Deny his offer, come to me, and we will depart.”
There was something about the cowled man that prompted Je’en to trust him. Perhaps, it was because he wanted nothing from her except to give up what the other man had supposedly given her. She turned from him to the priest, and saw the scowl on his face. It was actually more than a scowl, it was pure rage and hatred concealed badly. Je’en made her decision – she began to walk over to the taller man.
The priest shouted “No!” and flung an arm across Je’en’s path. From his fingers a siclky purple-green line of fire flashed across the room, between Je’en and the cowled man. The priest swung his arm behind him, and the line of fire became a translucent wall dividing the whole room in half, with Je’en on one side, and the other three on the other.
Je’en tried to push thru the green-purple wall, but touching it caused so much pain that she cried out and fell back. So, she could only watch what was going on on the other side.
Mahr was watching, too. She had never seen her master in an all out Duel of magic. Such a thing was very rare, as were magicians of most any caliber. She was not suprised that the priest could hold his own against Cefn – it had rapidly become obvious that he was high up in the priestly order of Jhel, perhaps even in the Septent, and it was well known (to those who knew at all) that the highest of Jhel’s followers were renowned magic users.
The contest was incomprehensible to non-participants. All that was visible of the striving was stray emissions – attacks that did not make their mark, the efluvia of shattered thrusts, and leakages of gathered force for an attack. Mahr saw her master seemingly just standing, cowl thrown back, hands slightly forward of his body, facing the priest, who was in a similar position. Light flashed to the sides of them, and Mahr started as several stray attacks that shattered against the protection of the septacle. She noticed that the wall created by the priest was similar protection for Je’en.
Eventually, the battle began to go against the priest. There were few stray emissions around the priest anymore, indicating more on-the- mark attacks. He began to sweat, and his hands began to move higher and higher as he worked harder to attack and defend himself. He began to glance furtively around for a way out. His eyes lit on Mahr and her protection, and he smiled.
His hands began to point different directions, and he began to direct energy at the ground around the septacle, as well as at Cefn. The ground below the septacle began to thin, but no one noticed, so intent were they on the battle. Slowly, Terkan’s magic ate away at the fabric of the limbo space, until finally it gave way. Mahr screamed as she fell thru into somewhere else.
Cefn turned in time to see his apprentice vanish, along with the septacle, intact. With a little cry, he darted over to the hole in the floor to try to help her. Seeing his chance, Terkan prepared a final blow, aimed at Cefn’s defenceless back.
Je’en saw Terkan smiling at the undefended mage, and knew that the mage was in trouble. She braced herself and threw herself at the purple-green wall, and at Terkan. Pain lanced thru her, searing every nerve, causing her to scream in agony – but she kept going. She moved through treacle, taking forever – a forever of agony – to reach the man, but reach him she did, knocking him down, causing him to lose his concentration, and his spell backfired. Je’en lay panting and crying from the pain for several minutes before she felt the other man gently move her from on top of Terkan, who seemed to be unconscious.
Cefn examined the priest, and deemed him safe for the moment. He returned his attention to Je’en, and said, “Are you alright?”
Je’en sat up groggily, and looked at her rescuer. She first noted his eyes – pure blue all thru. He was handsome, with thin, aristocratic features, but his eyes seemed something out of legends.
She finally said, “Yes, I’m alright. Your friend…”
“Mahr was my apprentice. She is beyond hope. Perhaps my masters will look kindly on her, save her, but she will not return to this world. I should have been prepared for treachery. I…”
“Um, thank you for saving me,” said Je’en. “Who are you, anyway, and why?”
Cefn said, “My appologies, Je’en. My name is Cefn an’Derin. My occupation should be obvious. What I said about Jhel was true – your sword is the key to the priests of Jhel’s armageddon prophecy, and this man, probably one of the leaders of the cult, was trying to wrest it from you. We, Mahr and I, have been involved with the downfall of Jhel, and have been watching you carefully, which is why he tried to trick you into giving him the sword. Only his brief possessive thought alerted my surveilance to the fact that you were in trouble. Now, we – I – have the key we need to destroy the rest of the Septent of Jhel in Dargon, and destroy her worship for good.”
Cefn reached, perhaps a little wearily, into his belt-pouch and withdrew a small hemisphere of dark glass. Je’en watched as he placed the glass dome on Terkan’s temple, and said a word. The dome began to glow, and the unconscious Terkan began to grimace in pain. It took about five minutes for the dome to do its work, and by the end, Terkan was screaming soundlessly. When the hemisphere ceased glowing, Cefn removed it from Terkan’s head. It left a charred spot where it had rested, and it was no longer dark, but rather a swirling milky-white.
Cefn said, “Within this theryum is all of the priests memories and thoughts. With this, I can masquerade as him, gain admittance to a high meeting of the Brothers, and destroy them.
“Come, Je’en. Let us return to Dargon. I think the priest will be happy to suffer the imprisonment he meant for you.”
“Wait, Master Cefn. Terkan, the priest, he said that he could send me to another world, where I would be able to sing again. Could you do that as he said? If so, I would rather not return to Dargon.”
“I’m sorry, Je’en, but that was another lie. There is no way for our magics to penetrate the dimensional boundaries. This is another plane of existence, and in it, you bear your spirit-body, which is as healthy and whole as you wish it to be. But, human life is foreign to this plane, and its natural inhabitants enjoy torturing anyone or thing foreign.”
Cefn had begun setting up another septacle, orienting the major angle on a sense he had of the proper direction. Je’en watched the little red angles dart around of their own accord with fascination. When it was done, Cefn motioned her into the center of the figure.
She said, before Cefn could begin to activate the septacle, “So, what now? You have the means to destroy this cult of Jhel, but you have also lost your apprentice. What will you do when your mission is complete?”
Cefn looked at Je’en, and she saw sadness in his face. He said, “Mahr and I worked long and hard to destroy Jhel. I shall miss her greatly, yet some kind of loss is fitting, in a way. As to what next, I have no idea. My time is finally once again my own. Perhaps I’ll do some more research, maybe find another apprentice, and pass along my knowledge. I just don’t know.”
“Why don’t we team up,” said Je’en. “I have been getting so bored in that Peace-keeper job I’ve got, that it nearly drove me mad. But, in a land that is so sparsely populated, and largely unknown, there must be some more exciting work for a swordswoman, and it will be even more exciting with a real magician along to help. Sound good?”
Cefn was silent for a long time. In truth, the idea seemed a good one – but Je’en didn’t know very much about him, including the part he had played in her present circumstances. Still, the offer of adventure sure sounded better than a lot of reclusive research. And, he had grown to like Je’en while watching and protecting her. So, he finally said, “Sure. Why not? Let’s be a team!” And he activated the magic that returned them to the real world and Dargon.