DargonZine 27, Issue 2

What Cannot Be Tempered

Seber 22, 1018 - Seber 24, 1018


Caeris, the mage, couldn’t sleep. He lay quietly in the state between wakefulness and dreaming, tucked under the voluminous covers of a beautiful but overly lavish four-poster bed. The new High Mage, Alrik Vidor, had sent notice ahead and procured the night’s lodging in Kenna for his students, the second of whom was to join Caeris shortly. The prior High Mage Marcellon had been incapacitated after the war, and it was presently unknown when, or if he would recover fully. The King of Baranur had therefore chosen to appoint a new High Mage in his stead. Caeris shook his head, not wanting to think of those dark days when Marcellon had lain closer to death than any living being should. Caeris focused instead on the room he occupied, a cramped room at the River’s Edge tavern, literally stuffed with furniture in a somewhat futile attempt to impress whoever occupied it — certainly futile in his case. Caeris was most definitely not impressed.

In response to Vidor’s message, the owner of the inn had set aside this private room instead of a pile of straw somewhere in the general tavern where most of the inn’s guests slept. While the mage appreciated the effort, the gilt and scrollwork was wasted on him. A part of Caeris would have preferred Elijah Kenna, the owner of the inn, to have spent his time scrounging up separate beds for him and his forthcoming colleague. The mage was used to sharing sleeping quarters with others, as was the norm when traveling frequently, but this circumstance unnerved him. He comforted himself with the small fact that this time he would more thoroughly know the body he slept beside.

To clear his mind, Caeris found himself focusing on the presence of the tavern patrons a floor below. Their auras felt similar to the heat off a gravel pit under the sun: a dozen radiant points that, together, pulsed with the life within them; this peculiar talent had always been his specialty. He could tell who was older and who was younger, who was more likely to be animated in speech, and who could potentially be dangerous. The gift had served him well in his dealings with strangers. It wasn’t perfect, but he had enough mastery of it to use it to his advantage.

That was when Caeris felt it. A prick in his senses woke him further, so much that he sat upright in the down-stuffed bed. An aura came to his attention like a searing pebble amidst the general chaff of the inn. He had wondered if it would have changed in the two years since he had seen the man. People’s auras changed along with them as they aged, the most notable times being when they transitioned from childhood to adult, but wizards were curious in their own right. As they acquired more knowledge, it sometimes changed them in ways that even they were not completely aware. But this aura was the same: blue, reflecting Yloth’s bright and self-assured personality, it was like an unexpected stroke along the edges of Caeris’ nerves; it prompted a quickening of his heart and his breath. In his chest he felt the echo of a distant hurt but he put it aside; there was still a part of him that looked forward to seeing Lord Yloth of Cauldwell, a small town in the duchy of Kiliaen south of the Laraka.

Echoes of the past blew through his mind with the force of a stormy wind. Images of their youth slid through his mind, both of them studying together under Marcellon, a million boyish giggles that had slowly given way to a much more adult friendship that was as companionable as it had been emotional. Events had risen to a crescendo, and Yloth had left on a mission that Marcellon had sent him on without so much as a goodbye. Prior to his leaving, Caeris had thought, had hoped for a great deal more. Instead, he’d been left mulling over the embers of a passionate fire that had been at its zenith in the days prior, only to find himself mourning the same fire at its nadir once Yloth had left.

Shaking the ghosts of the past away, Caeris kicked off the frilled covers and made his way to the door, opening it to find a tall man standing there unassumingly, his hand raised as if about to knock. A thick, woolen riding cloak covered his light tan jacket, a plain linen shirt underneath unbuttoned at the collar. Yloth broke into a smile at the sight of him. “Caeris,” he said, lowering his hand. “I forgot you could do that.”

“I find that highly unlikely, Yloth. But that aside, it’s good to see you, too.” He stepped back from the door to let the other in, suddenly aware that he had not put on his shirt in his haste to get to the door before Yloth had made it upstairs. Yloth walked in, brushing Caeris’ chest with the lightest of touches from his shoulder, a movement which a casual observer could have described as accidental but which Caeris knew would have been carefully calculated by the other mage.

“Vidor’s note said you would arrive by sixth bell.”

Yloth maneuvered his way around an overstuffed ottoman and dropped his pack at the foot of the bed. He went about pulling off his deerskin gloves, yanking each finger in turn to loosen them. “Well, our new High Mage — as far-sighted as we believe him to be — seems to overestimate the capacity of horses with bad shoes. It’s good we had a farrier with us or one of the poor animals would have gone lame.” Looking about him and finding no convenient chair at hand, he sat down on the bed, pulling out a rumpled but delicate-looking envelope from his dress coat. “Do you realize Vidor found me much like Marcellon used to?” Yloth fingered the crimson seal on the edge of the flap.

Caeris closed the door but remained where he stood, leaving a small but significant space between him and his colleague. “Have you not met Vidor in person yet? He’s very different from Marcellon.”

“Personally, I think Vidor has a pact with Cirrangil.” Yloth tossed his gloves onto the ottoman, going back to the topic of how the new High Mage had found him. “There I was, in the middle of the ocean, and I wake up in my hammock to find an envelope with a red seal sitting on my belongings. Utterly ridiculous. Do you know how hard it is for *anything* to stay perched on top of anything else on a ship at sea?”

A wildly inappropriate remark surfaced in Caeris’ mind but he bit it back and simply shook his head.

“I knew all of my shipmates. None of them was aware that a new High Mage had been appointed, much less what his name is or that he had such abilities. Did a porpoise place it there?” Yloth let out a short breath and paused in his rant. “I was perfectly content with my studies of the ocean, Caeris. There was no need for me to drop everything and run off chasing tales of monsters.”

Caeris stooped to pick up Yloth’s gloves. They were soft, of obvious fine quality, with a monogram on their wide cuffs. “And yet you knew that this would be part of our training –”

Yloth waved his comments away. “Honestly, now you’re starting to sound like Marcellon. Our training was meant to conclude with the investigation of a few cases of actual rogue magics –”

“Which there have been,” Caeris interjected.

“Perhaps for you. Most of what I’ve seen are country bumpkins fooled by charlatans whose antics could scarcely qualify as magic by anyone who has seen actual magic!” Yloth seemed to notice the stitched sheets on the bed for the first time and took hold of the corner of one to bring it to his cheek. “Oh, linens,” he murmured. “Oh how I have missed thee.”

“Well, this is more than a tale, Yloth,” Caeris crossed his arms, ignoring his bedmate’s frivolous preoccupation with the mattress coverings. “There are bodies to bear witness here. And some of the traders in the area have reported sighting something in the woods near Gor Gariner.”

Yloth dropped the cloth in his hand and shrugged. “When have the locals ever not reported something lurking near Gor Gariner? As far as they’re concerned, that place is haunted by the spirits of a thousand Eelail, dead some millennia past from their battle with the Fretheod. It’s probably some sadistic loon, wild dogs, or cavereen.”

“Well,” Caeris said softly, “that is for us to determine. Although I like your idea of a cavareen; I can just imagine a four-legged creature as tall as a man, howling at night.” He grinned. “I’ve never heard of a cavareen howling at night.” Cavareens were gentle, diurnal creatures that could never be domesticated.

Yloth cursed under his breath and fell back onto the bed. With a sigh of frustration, he placed Vidor’s envelope over his eyes.

“How many are dead?”

“Six, including a child of twelve,” Caeris said quietly.

Yloth’s aura flickered in irritation, the normal blue shooting out small tendrils of white. Caeris wasn’t convinced it was all due to the interruption in the mage’s studies. Yloth had never been the consummate student; he always liked a good distraction. Caeris liked to believe that there was some discomfort coming from the two of them working together again.

“Stop it,” Yloth said.

“Pardon?”

Yloth lifted the envelope to peer at him. “Stop reading my aura. You always get quiet and your eyes get that unfocused look when you’re doing it.”

“You couldn’t see my eyes.”

He let the envelope fall back into place. “You have extremely loud eyes.”

Caeris shook his head and put Yloth’s gloves on a scalloped and painted side table, jammed into the corner of the room. “Well, these loud eyes need some sleep. We have a day and a half’s journey through the woods to get to Gor Gariner and find out what’s going on there.” As Caeris moved to the bed’s edge, Yloth reached out and grabbed his wrist. He pulled away quickly, stepping back in the process, finding his colleague having rolled over onto his belly, looking sheepish.

“I just wanted to check that there weren’t any new scars.”

Now Caeris really did wish he had put on his shirt so that he could more easily hide the old, faint scars that ran vertically from the base of his palm.

“There aren’t,” Caeris said tersely. “And next time you can simply ask rather than getting my knuckles in your face if you try that again.” He quickly got into the bed and pulled on a quilted blanket, keeping his back steadfastly to Yloth.

He heard the man undress with a series of unbucklings and the gentle whisper of cloth rustling against cloth. The room’s lone candle was snuffed out and he felt the covers pulled back and the presence of another body in the bed next to him.

“Good night, Caeris,” Yloth said, with the faintest trace of smugness.

Caeris did not feel compelled to reply.

 

***

 

Three villagers, two woodsmen named Jervis Gannt and Sethen of Trasath and a boy no older than thirteen summers called Emerich, volunteered to take the wizards out to where the bodies had been found. Their auras revealed little excitement about the task ahead, except the boy’s, which burned such a bright orange that Caeris found it difficult to gaze upon him for more than a few moments. The young were typically like that: excitement about every new experience, and every new day.

Yloth came up beside him, rubbing his own eyes against the early morning brightness. The air was cold and crisp in late summer fashion. “Oh the morning comes too early,” he yawned, clapping his hands in their riding gloves. “Are we truly walking? Couldn’t we take the river?” he asked, his breath visible in the air around his face.

The taller of the woodsmen, Jervis, raised his head from the pack he was checking. “If you want to get to the mount in a sennight instead of two days, then certainly.” He closed the weathered satchel’s flap, then lifted it onto his broad shoulders. “Unless, of course, you gentlemen might be inclined to use magic to aid our labors against the current?”

Yloth put his hands on his hips and looked thoughtful. “Certainly,” he replied, “if perhaps you’d like to sacrifice your life against whomever we meet in the woods since we’ll be too exhausted to help.”

Jervis looked to his companion, Sethen, and simply rolled his eyes. “The trails it is, then,” he said and started into the forest. Emerich and the other woodsman fell into line without another word.

Yloth wrinkled his brow and leaned in close to Caeris. “Honestly,” he whispered. “This is Kenna’s finest?”

Caeris lifted his own pack and started after the small group. “These are the only ones considered fool enough to dare Gor Gariner,” he replied over his shoulder. He waited a moment before adding, “I’m surprised you’re fool enough to have come along as well.”

“As if I had a choice.” Yloth fell into line, kicking a stone in his way to send it skittering into the underbrush. “Gor Gariner doesn’t frighten me. It’s just an old Eelail stronghold.”

“The oldest that we know of.”

“Yes, yes, the most ancient of the ancient outposts,” Yloth said in elevated, nasal tones. He snorted. “Much good it’s done for us to investigate any of the Eelail mounds. Their magic is so earthbound. Derived from the soil and the sand and the woods they inhabit. As those things change, the Eelail magic changes, mostly into harmless, tingly vapors and then nothing, given enough time.”

Caeris smiled at Yloth’s derision at the mystical race’s far superior magic abilities. “And yet the townsfolk still fear that old mount,” he said.

“Well, we can thank our forefathers and their propaganda for that. If they had shown any sort of diplomatic skill to complement their martial skills, we might actually have decent relations with the people who originally inhabited this land.” Yloth ducked under a branch that crossed their path. “As much as I’m frustrated by the lack of understanding we have of Eelail magic, I hate everything about our Fretheod ancestors: their writing, their history, and, gods know, their magic. They were the antithesis of the Eelail; they never had a proper respect for the nature of things, always working to impose their will on whatever it was they touched.”

Caeris nodded thoughtfully. It was an accurate assessment of the people who had conquered the lands around them. “They were masters of their art and used it without much forethought as to the consequences. That was their doom, as Marcellon taught us. But without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Precisely,” Yloth said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now trying to dislodge a pebble that’s worked its way into my shoe. Slow down a moment and help me.”

 

***

 

The travelers spent the day in relative silence, punctuated by Yloth’s occasional complaint about the lack of suitable transportation in the region. They walked the long trail that led deeper and deeper into the heart of the Coldwell valley, typically reserved for the woodsmen and trappers in the area. Leaves on the tall, spindly trees were beginning to show color at their edges, as if the air itself had begun to suckle the deep green out of their frail, fluttering forms. Caeris had never ventured far into the Darst Range, preferring, like his companion, to stay close to the comforts of human habitation. He was no stranger to the lonely nights of reading and research that often occupied a mage’s time, but it always comforted him to have others close at hand, even if it meant they were behind a closed door.

Near dusk, the boy Emerich fell back from the other woodsmen to walk with the mages. He was appropriately gangly for his age, all arms and legs with a mop of raven hair that grew long to cover his jutting ears.

“So what’s it like?” he asked without introduction, falling in step with them. “To have magic?”

Yloth looked first to Caeris for a response, but he merely shrugged.

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” Yloth said, adjusting the pack on his shoulders. “For each of us the experience can be different. To some it’s no more strange than walking or breathing, just another sense that you’ve always had and grown up with.”

“Magic is like breathing?” Emerich pressed.

Yloth smiled. “Sometimes. If the mood is right and you don’t have garlic from your last meal stuffing up your nose, sometimes you can even smell it.” He got a return smile from the boy. “But, honestly, most of the time you don’t even know it’s there.”

“Unless it’s so strong you can’t escape it,” Caeris added, his eyes lowered to the ground to avoid Emerich’s burning aura. “Sometimes magic that’s in you can be so strong as to be noxious. When you’re the only one who can feel it … It can leave you feeling different from everyone around you — even your closest family. And sometimes they fear you because of it.”

The three of them continued on in silence for several moments.

“Yes,” Yloth said, filling the sudden void of conversation. “For some, there can be those times, too. But it’s not that commonplace. It’s a burden that’s learned over time.”

Emerich jumped over a log and moved away from Caeris to stand closer to Yloth. “Can you show me some magic?” the boy asked, excitement in his voice. “That is, if you’re not tired?” His voice rose in a question.

Yloth beamed, straightening his back as he walked. “Certainly,” he said. “I think we can arrange that. Tonight, while we camp.”

The boy’s mouth broke into a wild grin and he ran forward to take his usual place with Sethen and Jervis. He started to tell them about the entertainment for the evening.

“Is this wise?” Caeris asked.

“It sounds like you’ve already passed judgment on the matter. Honestly, it won’t be much. You saw how eager the boy was.”

“Yes, and I’m sure it’s all for the boy’s good that you’re doing this.”

The edges of Yloth’s mouth curled into a smile.

Caeris simply shook his head and continued walking.

 

***

 

In front of the campfire, Yloth’s thin figure took on the form of a spectre. His aura, dancing as it was with delight, merged with the shooting flames behind him. Emerich and the two woodsmen sat on a fallen tree in front, looking up expectantly. Their meal had consisted of some rabbit meat Sethen had brought along with them, tempered with bitter Kenna ale and reasonably soft bread. Caeris sat at the light’s edge a little distance away, reclining against a grizzled trunk and watching his friend tiredly.

“Gentlemen, and not-quite-yet-gentleman,” Yloth began, gesturing extravagantly, first at the woodsmen and then at Emerich. “I’ve been kindly asked to perform for you tonight and, as your humble ambassador from the mageborn, I am more than willing to oblige.”

Caeris chuckled at the word “humble”.

Emerich leaned forward even further while Sethen and Jervis’ auras took on a more skeptical flare, a light, almostly sickly yellow color. “Now the city boy finds the strength to wield magic,” Sethen muttered. Jervis punched him lightly on the shoulder.

Yloth pretended not to have heard the comment. “To those without the skill, magic is might and awe — shock and spectacle. While it’s true that I could cause the earth to rumble or perhaps move the Coldwell from its bed, it is much more than those things. It is an understanding of the world’s deeper mysteries.

“Magic is not always about strength,” he said. In a fluid motion, he bent down and picked up two leaves from the forest floor. They were brown but still supple, bending in his hands. “Magic is also an art. It is a whispering in the world’s most ancient tongue.” As he spoke, leaf in each hand, he brought the stems together. “All you have to do is know the right words.” Slowly, and with flourish, he spread his hands flat. The leaves stood upright, bound at their base. Then, as if moved by some invisible hand, the leaves curled forward and outward, stretching. Finding themselves animated, the leaves bent again, and then again, increasing their speed until the makeshift bundle lifted from Yloth’s hands into the air.

First hesitantly, then with more confidence, the patchwork butterfly approached Emerich’s astonished face. The boy smiled in wonder, watching the leaves move deftly from his outstretched grasp and then circle gracefully above his head, veering to the woodsmen who sat beside him. Jervis laughed as Sethen batted the creature away from his face.

The show continued for a mene or more before Emerich called in Caeris’ direction. “Can you do something, too?” he asked.

Caeris shook his head.

“Come now, Caeris,” Yloth prodded in a mocking tone. “Be a sport.” He brought his hands together and then gestured in the direction of his classmate. The butterfly creation whisked through the air in a drunken fashion to hover just before Caeris’ face.

All eyes were focused on him. He knew it was Yloth’s way of goading him out of his naturally withdrawn shell. “Come here, Emerich,” he sighed.

The boy moved from his seat and squatted before the mage, looking at him eagerly. His aura was brilliant and intensely orange. Caeris forced himself not to wince at the radiance.

“Now, my magic is different than Yloth’s, just as your hair is a different color than that of Sethen’s or Jervis’,” he explained, his eyes watering briefly at the brightness before him. The boy nodded, clearly not really understanding the difference, but being agreeable all the same. “What is your favorite food?” Caeris asked.

“Strawberry pie,” the boy replied.

Bringing his hands together briefly and closing his eyes, Caeris reached forward and placed his thumbs in the space just above and between Emerich’s own eyes, touching the boy’s skin briefly. In his heart, Caeris drew the boy’s intense aura forward, plumbing its tendrils for the briefest of moments before releasing it back to its owner.

Emerich looked confused for a moment, then his gaze became unfocused and he gasped. Jervis and Sethin traded glances. “What did he do?” Jervis asked.

Emerich fell backward, off-balance. “It’s as if …” the boy struggled to find the words. “It’s as if the world has become like strawberry pie,” he said in amazement. “I can smell it, taste it.” He wiped at his mouth and left a string of drool attached to his hand. “I remember all the times I’ve ever eaten it, all at once.”

Caeris himself smiled at the boy’s reaction. There was a reason performers so enjoyed the stage. He remembered being so enthralled once upon a time, so caught up in the wonder of magic.

But Caeris’ pleasure chilled quickly. Before him, in his mind’s eye, he sensed something wrong, something sour. Yloth picked up on his friend’s change in countenance, even from a distance.

“What is it, Caeris?”

“Something is here,” he said softly. Caeris wasn’t sure what he was sensing. The heat from the flame, the auras of his companions: everything dimmed in his otherworldly sense.

Yloth pulled Emerich off the ground and to him, by the fire. The other woodsmen came to their feet and stood with their backs to the fire, looking about them wildly.

“I can’t see,” Jervis muttered. “Why is it that I can’t see?”

Even though the men stood in front of the flames, the woods about them seemed darker than it should, the light less bright around their dancing shadows. Caeris rose from the ground to stand by Yloth, trying to determine the source of the feeling.

Above them, Yloth’s thing of leaves stopped fluttering, coming apart and gliding gently into the fire. In the brief spark of illumination caused by the destruction of Yloth’s magic, Caeris saw the creature.

Tall and hulking it was, like a man but not a man. It had two thin legs and arms and a blunt, squat head atop a bulbous body with flesh that wept down its naked torso in folds. Giant, black eyes glittered in the darkness. Caeris barely had time to open his mouth before the thing rushed towards them, its legs moving horribly fast for something so ill-shapen.

Sethen was in its grasp before the men could scatter. The woodsman let out a shout of dismay before the thing’s head came down upon his own, a mouth the size of a small barrel opening among the fleshy folds to reveal rows of bent, yellowed teeth. Sethen’s cry was immediately muffled as his head disappeared into the thing’s cavernous maw.

“Ol’s prick!” Yloth shouted. He reached into the fire to pull out a flaming log and push it into the monstrosity, trying to miss Sethen’s convulsing body. The wood broke apart like some matchstick against the creature’s glistening, hard skin.

Caeris was in shock at the thing. It had no aura. Nothing. It was as if he were looking at stones that simply moved and had a shape. Or grave dirt given form. The abomination’s mouth released the woodsman who fell to the ground in a motionless heap, a wet lump all that remained of his head. It turned and saw Caeris, its eyes pools of darkness reflecting the fire. It dashed for him and he fell back before its mad rush, gazing upon the mouth that opened widely, lines of bloodied teeth yawning like some ocean beast.

Just as it reached him, the creature stiffened and turned about, the haft of a hatchet buried deep in its shoulder. From across the camp, Emerich stood as if on the brink of some demonic hell, shouting obscenities at the thing.

Yloth was next to Caeris in that instant, pulling him away from the beast which was raising itself up, its attention momentarily diverted. Yloth’s hands went up in the air and dragged downward, as if pulling the very stars from their roots. The campfire leapt from its hearth and immediately rushed the creature like a ragged pack of hounds unleashed upon some prey. Other fires erupted in its wake, all chasing towards the monstrosity. In a moment they were on the creature’s legs, and its back; all at once it was engulfed in flames. An otherworldly shriek of rage broke the silence of the forest and the abomination swung about itself, as if fighting the flames that raced along its form. And surely, each swipe it took extinguished the fire upon its bulbous body.

“Caeris, it has magic,” Yloth said frantically, exertion on his face as he poured his will into the flames that were still burning on the monster. “Help me!” Caeris brought his hand to Yloth’s shoulder, wincing as his own aura touched the magically enraged wizard’s. Opening his senses, he pushed his aura outward, bending it to touch Yloth’s, merge with it. But, stubbornly, his aura would not meld.

“Caeris!” Yloth shouted.

The abomination extinguished all but several small flames along its grotesque body, and at the wizard’s cry, it turned toward him and charged.

Caeris saw Yloth’s danger and threw himself between the two, shouting. In response, he felt his aura billow outward, a sheet of pure magical fire that exploded in the air, sending a bright shockwave that threw both him and Yloth off their feet. Heavy, frantic footsteps stomped off into the dark.

Both mages scrambled to stand, putting their backs together so they could combat any threat more effectively. Breathing harshly, they waited to see if the creature returned. All that greeted them was the darkness of the forest.

“Yloth? Caeris?” They heard Jervis call out.

“We’re here,” Yloth said. “Where’s Emerich?”

“I’m here,” a small, shaken voice responded.

“Come here, both of you,” Yloth snapped. “Come get the fire started again.” Around them, small bundles of burning twigs and leaves let out a feeble light, but the campfire pit had but a few dying embers. Jervis appeared near them, kneeling before the firepit and striking flint against a piece of steel with trembling hands. A corner of Caeris’ mind absently noted that Jervis was so shaken that he hadn’t even realized there were live embers around them, instead striking the flint to start the fire again in the pit. A smaller form — Emerich — moved to be near Jervis.

“What was that creature?” Caeris muttered.

“Hells if I know,” Yloth replied, his hands raised before him. Caeris could feel the magic coiled within his colleague, waiting to spring. “I hoped you had some idea.”

“I couldn’t even see it, Yloth. It had no aura, nothing that I could detect.”

“And it had magic, or at least the ability to combat it. Quite effectively, too.” He paused in his scanning of the forest to look over his shoulder at Caeris. “How are you?” he asked. “That was some light show you put on.”

Caeris swallowed, his strength leaving him suddenly. “I’m … fine. I think.”

By the firepit, sparks gave birth to flame. In a few moments, enough wood was burning to bring the campsite back into view. Jervis went to kneel by Sethen’s mangled form as the two mages approached. “He’s dead,” the woodsman said.

Yloth nodded, looking at the damage wrought to the fallen man’s head. The creature’s teeth had done impressive work in a scant amount of time. “In a way, I’m glad. It would be a much worse situation if he had survived the onslaught.”

“What was it?” Emerich asked.

“Neither of us is sure,” Yloth said. “But thank you, Emerich. You saved Caeris’ life. Clearly, this has to be what killed your townsfolk.”

“Or something like it,” Caeris said weakly.

Yloth glared at him. “Let’s hope there’s only one. Jervis, cover … Sethen up. And let’s form a watch. Caeris will rest first, but we should keep vigil in pairs of two until dawn comes.”

“And then what?” Emerich asked.

“And then we decide if we should run or not,” Yloth said.

 

***

 

Even though he was not convinced he could sleep, Caeris managed to doze off after watching Yloth and Jervis take the first watch. Exhaustion welled up unexpectedly and consumed him. His dreams were filled with unease, though, vacillating between landscapes of inky darkness and tendrils of smoky light. He sensed empty, sightless eyes just beyond the edge of his awareness, seeking him out.

He woke before dawn, in pale gray light. Emerich was still curled under his blanket, but both Jervis and Yloth were awake, sitting close to the smoldering remains of the fire. They had moved Sethen’s body out away from the camp.

“How are you feeling?” Yloth asked him as he stirred.

“I’ve been better,” Caeris replied. “Nobody woke me for the watch.”

“We figured you could use the rest, so we managed among the three of us. I even got in a wink or two,” he smiled. “Jervis and I were just talking about what to do.”

“And?”

“I think he and Emerich should head back to Kenna to get more help.”

“But what about you two?” Jervis asked. Nervousness lingered at the back of the woodsman’s tired, bloodshot eyes. “I know that I’d feel a lot better if you accompanied me and the boy back to town.”

Caeris shook his head. “Yloth is right. He and I must stay here to investigate further. That thing is a danger to all that roam this valley. Coldwell Abbey is not far from here, and there are woodsmen who work these hills. If Yloth and I can discover anything, we must do so, and quickly, before anyone else gets hurt.”

Yloth nodded. “Try to get to the river and make your way back as soon as possible. Send word that no one should be out in the valley at night. If we are not back within three days, send word to Dargon that we need help down here. They will make sure Alrik Vidor, the new High Mage, gets notified.”

Jervis nodded briskly and went to wake Emerich. Yloth then turned to Caeris and asked, “What exactly happened last night? I asked for your help and received nothing.”

“I wouldn’t call what happened nothing.”

“You know what I mean,” Yloth pressed. “What you did was impressive, although I have no idea what it is you actually did. You used to be able to lend your strength to another mage. Have your powers changed? You were not supposed to be able to project.”

The statement, bluntly uttered, stung Caeris’ pride. He felt himself blush in embarrassment, even though he knew that Yloth was well-versed in his shortcomings as a mage. Both of them had been Marcellon’s students; knowledge of each other’s powers was essential for them to work together. Still, he shrugged in response. Truth be told, he didn’t know what exactly had happened, but he wasn’t prepared to tell Yloth that. “I saw danger … and I acted,” he finally replied.

Yloth narrowed his eyes. His colleague might not have had the power to read auras, but the two were well-acquainted enough for him to discern when there were half-truths being uttered.

“It must have been the pressure of the situation,” Caeris offered. “I couldn’t focus properly to give you my strength. But I took care of it after all.”

Finally, Yloth broke with Caeris’ gaze. “Well, I wish you had told me. But the better for both of us, then. If you can project now on your own, then we should have nothing to worry about the next time we meet this creature.”

Caeris heard the hurt tone in his companion’s words, but merely nodded his head. In his heart, he hoped that Yloth was right.

After preparing a temporary cairn for Sethen, Yloth and Caeris bid goodbye to the two remaining woodsfolk. Jervis gave them directions on how to find the fallen tower where the original townsfolk were murdered. The two of them clasped forearms with Jervis and then went their separate ways.

Traveling through the morning proved uneventful, even as each of them started once or twice at the sound of a branch falling or a small animal dashing for cover. The two wizards broached the outer boundary of the cursed mount before midday, crossing some undefined threshold where the trees became older and thicker and daylight struggled to break through the canopy. The forest was far older on Gor Gariner than the rest of the valley, its trees having long avoided the blade of man. Typical sounds of the wood, such as insects, birds, and even the wind ceased, as if the mountain held its breath with the arrival of intruders.

They stopped in the afternoon to eat a quick meal of bread and dried venison. As Caeris took a seat at the foot of a crumbling pile of stone, Yloth flipped through the pages of a small leather-bound journal with his fine, slender fingers. He would pause to read a passage here and there before turning a few more pages. His actions reminded Caeris of their early school days in Magnus, when they would comb the shelves of the Great Library together.

Breaking from his momentary reverie, he asked, “Seeking inspiration?”

“More like guidance,” Yloth replied, scowling. He turned several more pages. “I’m looking through notes I took when Marcellon and I visited Gor Morgradev, down near Mt. Voldrannoi. It fell after Gor Gariner, and there were some markings that spoke of this mount.”

Caeris took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “It doesn’t look like you’ve found anything useful.”

“No, not really,” he heard Yloth sigh. “There was a lot of confusion among the Eelail when the Fretheod conquered Gor Gariner. Were their gods punishing them? Was it a test to prove their worth as a people? This outpost was the strongest they had in the region. They didn’t understand how it could have fallen so easily.”

Yloth’s knowledge of the Eelail impressed Caeris. He hadn’t realized how much time his classmate had devoted to the subject in their time apart. What little Caeris knew stemmed from the long bells of Marcellon’s lectures.

“Fretheod magic was strong,” he said. “Their staves provided fantastic powers to those who wielded them.”

“Yes, but Eelail magic is not to be taken lightly, either. The Eelail often describe Fretheod magic as being a ‘great sickness’. Fighting it came at enormous cost to them, as if the magic infected them somehow.”

The wind picked up around them, setting the long arms of ferns and bracken swaying drunkenly. Caeris wasn’t entirely following his cohort’s words. A great exhaustion welled up in him again, stealing the strength from his limbs and his attention. He settled himself more comfortably against the rock he leaned against. The cause of this sudden fatigue escaped him, but he didn’t have the resolve to question it.

Yloth glanced up from his journal and seemed to notice. There was concern in the shift of his aura, but he didn’t voice it. “Why don’t you get some rest, Caeris? I can watch over us for a little while.”

Caeris wanted to protest, but the words failed to come out of his throat. Rest sounded good to him, and he reasoned that he could stand first watch tonight in order to make up for it. Besides, if they came across the abomination again, it wouldn’t do for him to be struggling to concentrate. He let his leaden eyes fall shut and was asleep almost instantly.

 

***

 

In his mind’s eye, Caeris dreamed of sand. It took form from the wisps of smoke and light that he normally dreamed of, solidifying to become a landscape of spectacular dunes sprawling beneath a star-filled, moonlit sky.

Before him lay the carved and decorated four-poster bed from the inn in Kenna. Its cover was pulled back to reveal white, finely stitched sheets, a ribbon of raw, gray silk sewn along their hem. Yloth stood by its side, dressed again in his riding cloak and fine gloves, his plain shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest with smooth, sea-tanned skin showing underneath.

“What do we do now?” Yloth asked matter-of-factly, all playfulness and mockery gone from his voice.

“I don’t know,” Caeris muttered. He looked about him, confused. He remembered the forest, and the woodsmen. Jervis. Sethen. He wondered how he had arrived at this plain of sand, with dunes as tall as mountains rising up around them. He rubbed his eyes, feeling them burn from the fine sand in the wind. Something felt wrong. A foul taste rose in the back of his throat, like bile from a violent sickness. “We’ve done this,” he said to Yloth, trying to shake the feeling. “It did not end well.”

“You know that I never loved you.”

“Yes, I know,” Caeris said, almost as flatly, even as he felt his heart break for the thousandth time since they had parted, years prior. Before them, the bed transformed to sand, powder-like in its consistency. The footing under Caeris gave way and he plunged into the depths of the desert. He struggled to raise himself out from it, but his actions only drove him down further. First in sprinkles, then in lines, then in mounds, the sand flowed into his nose, his eyes, his open mouth. He was helpless against the onslaught. No matter how he turned, it flowed into him. Panicking, he held out his arms to Yloth, but the man looked away, oblivious to Caeris’ fate.

And that was when he realized what was truly happening. The wrongness. The sourness surrounding him. He was being attacked by the monster.

 

***

 

“I’m awake, I’m awake!” Caeris spluttered, shaking water from his head. He tried to sit up but a stern hand held him to the ground.

“Easy,” Yloth’s voice said. Caeris’ vision cleared to see his companion kneeling beside him, a flask in his other hand. “You cried out in your sleep and I couldn’t wake you. I began to worry.”

Caeris turned his head and saw the trees and the mountainside, just as he remembered them. His racing heart subsided. “The monster … the monster was in my dreams.” He then realized that Yloth’s hand remained on his chest. Instinctively, he pushed it away.

Yloth took the rebuff in stride and leaned back on his heels. “Well, it’s not unheard of to have nightmares –”

“No, Yloth, you’re not listening to me,” Caeris sat up and scanned the ground around them. There was no sense of wrongness like he had the night before or in his dream, but there was certainly a sense of unease growing inside of him. He felt violated and unclean, as if his image had been used to perpetrate a crime. “That behemoth was in my dreams, trying to kill me.”

Yloth said nothing right away. He continued studying Caeris’ face, his aura a flat blue, as still as his demeanor. “All right,” he said hesitantly. “The creature was in your dreams. It has magic. That’s not unheard of.” He, too, took the opportunity to glance around them then, searching for ghosts in the shadows. “Let’s get moving. I want to get some more done before nightfall. Besides, the sooner we find this abomination, the faster we can get rid of it and move on. There might be something at the place where the villagers were killed that can help us understand what gave birth to that monstrosity.”

They came across the first real ruins of Gor Gariner a bell later. While the Eelail preferred natural structures such as trees and brush for their primary habitats, they had once erected great works of stone for their strongholds: arches, sweeping walkways, and walls that were as thick as a man’s height. Caeris and Yloth found the old road Jervis had described to them, overgrown with weeds and vines that choked the worn cobblestones.

They climbed cautiously from that point onward, ears and eyes alert for any sense of wrongness that might stimulate their senses.

The tower was nothing more than a lump of rock on the side of the mountain, jutting out from a wall that ran zig-zag out of sight into the woods. It might have been the watchpoint for a great gate at one time, as an open space yawned beside it, but years had long since eroded any sense of doors or barriers. The tower’s top had partially crumbled and dim sunlight illuminated its interior. As they approached it, a familiar feeling of dread came upon them.

“Do you feel that?” Caeris asked. He shuddered at the sensation of a cold hand in the small of his back.

“Probably not as strongly as you, but yes, I sense it.” Yloth removed his gloves and carefully lowered his pack. “Are you ready for this?”

Caeris, too, dropped his pack and took a deep breath. He had no idea if he could reproduce his magical attack from the night before. The realization terrified him. For the briefest moment he wanted to confess his lack of confidence to Yloth. But he knew what would only follow was disappointment. Compassionate understanding, but still disappointment. Instead, he nodded.

They approached an opening at the base of the tower, a black hole that led into murky darkness. A faint, foul wind escaped it, blowing like the breath of some carrion beast.

“Oh my,” Yloth whispered.

The doorway opened to what had once been an enclosed room, its ceiling on the far side partially caved in and littered with vines that trailed down like shattered cobwebs. Bodies. Dozens of bodies hung from the walls, some whole, others splayed open like dolls, torn apart by a clumsy, careless child.

Caeris grew sick. “The villagers didn’t mention this,” he murmured.

Yloth approached one of the walls, his face pinched in mild disdain. “These might not have been here when they found the townsfolk. A number of them are still rather … fresh,” he said.

Caeris swallowed his nausea and picked his way across the shattered floor to another set of remains propped up against the wall. “A number of them aren’t human.” Caeris pointed at the hair and ears of the corpse. “They’re Eelail.”

Yloth was silent, stroking the stubble on his fair chin. He turned around in place, as if studying the scene. He then walked over to a pile of stones, gathered near where the ceiling had fallen in. They looked very much like all the other piles of stone in the room, but Yloth was quite specific as to his destination. He removed several of the broken forms, then halted.

“Caeris,” he called, his tone serious.

Caeris walked over to see what he had unearthed. A black obelisk shone dully under the dust and earthen remains. Chiseled perfectly into its face were a number of runes, cut at angles so precise that they belied their age. The sense of foulness emanated strongly from it, and through his talent, Caeris felt a muted throbbing, a sense of contained power, from the obelisk.

“Hmm.” Caeris was loath to be so close to it. “Fretheod,” he said. Beside him, Yloth spat into the rubble.

“I should have known.”

“But what does it mean?” Caeris asked. “Why now? The Fretheod have been gone for thousands of years! Obelisks like this are present throughout most of Baranur.”

“Not quite like this. Wait here.” Yloth went outside to retrieve his satchel, plumbing its depths as he walked back in. “There was an obelisk like this in Gor Morgradev. But it was in a dozen or more pieces.” He took out the worn tome of his journal and flipped through its pages. He stopped on one and began comparing scrawlings in it to the obelisk beneath his fingers. “Yes, very much alike. Look, these runes are the same. But there were too many pieces missing from the other one to get a good translation.”

“Well, what does this one say?”

Yloth scrunched his eyes. “Well, beyond a few ‘Be forewarned, heathens of the underbrush’, there are a number of references to a guardian. And there are some very powerful elements being named here.”

“A Fretheod guardian on an Eelail outpost?”

“Well, it makes sense,” Yloth argued, snapping his journal shut. “The Fretheod wanted to disassemble the outposts of Eelail power. We never really knew how they managed to overrun these places and keep them from being used again. Most scholars assumed the Fretheod had a large fighting force, but it never explained why so many of the Eelail strongholds were abandoned after they fell and never reoccupied.”

“Unless, of course, something kept them out.”

“Precisely,” Yloth said. He looked around at the stones and the carnage in the room. “This rubble has fewer weeds growing around it than most of the others. I’d say that the obelisk fell recently and was somehow activated.”

“Can’t you feel the power within it? If this obelisk is powering the guardian, it seems to have plenty of power left over. How do you propose deactivating this guardian?” Caeris asked. “Are we going to have to find it and fight it again?”

Yloth raised his eyebrows. “Well, I wouldn’t say finding it will be an issue.”

Caeris turned and saw the abomination standing in the doorway. By daylight, its skin looked moist and leathery, a brownish hue pocked with marks of green. Its long arms reached down to its knees, ending in claws that trailed knobby, lean fingers. Caeris immediately brought his hand to Yloth’s shoulder, preparing once again to try and meld their auras. He felt the heat surrounding his form pressing into the boundary of Yloth’s power, the two colors swirling and pooling against each other, and yet, again, no merging would occur. He swore under his breath. They stood for barely a moment or two, regarding the thing before it began to move toward them.

Yloth raised his hands, which began glowing faintly, and glanced at Caeris. “Now might be a good time to use some of those projection skills you showed last night.”

Earnestly, Caeris sought the magic he had used the prior night, coaxing his aura to issue forth, but it felt beyond his reach.

“Anytime now, Caeris!”

But Caeris had no further time for thought. The creature closed on them as fast as it had in the woods, leaping across the ruined ground like some engorged toad. Yloth’s voice barked harshly into the air and the world was suddenly filled with light and heat. Fingers of lightning arced from the ruined ceiling to fill the space between them and the creature. The monstrosity halted for just a moment before it pushed through the field like a man through a curtain of water.

Caeris fell back as it closed upon Yloth, raising his companion in long, sinewy arms. Time slowed in the mage’s eyes. He saw Yloth straining against the creature’s grasp, the thing’s mouth opening to reveal the rows of yellowed, saliva-strewn teeth. He put out his hand futilely, and in that moment remembered one of the first rules of magic that his teacher, Marcellon, had ever told him: in times of desperation, what could not be tempered could sometimes be taken.

He could not feel the creature. He had no way to know of its presence other than to see it before him. But he felt the obelisk, its raw power thrumming like a harsh wind on the ground beside him. He brought his hand down upon it, and in his heart he opened his senses to their fullest, looking to engulf the burning chasm of power within his own aura. His breath caught in his chest. He felt his own heart stop beating. For one sickening moment, he looked through the creature’s eyes, its hunger filled his stomach, its strength coursed through his arms. Yloth struggled against him. Caeris saw his own helpless form staring up at him. And then the world crumbled like earth into a grave, melting into hues of amber and green, and darkness. So much darkness.

 

***

 

Caeris became aware of Yloth’s presence before he actually saw him. Cool hues of calm and assurance lay at the edges of his own faint, flickering aura. It was only then that he felt the warmth of arms wrapped around his chest, the solid bulk of a man against his back. He opened his eyes to darkness and night, and a small fire burning close by.

“That was a very foolish thing you did,” Yloth said.

“It was the only thing left to do,” he croaked. His lips were dry and chapped. “You know what Marcellon taught us: in times of desperation, what cannot be tempered –”

“– can sometimes be taken. I know. But, somehow, I don’t think he was referring to the millennia-old magic of our ancestors when he was having us write that on our slates.”

Caeris sighed. It felt good to be held again, despite the headache that threatened to plunge him into darkness. “What happened to the creature?”

“It fell apart. Quite literally. One moment I was being crushed by it, watching my all-too-brief life flash before my eyes, and then it disbanded. Flesh and bone and teeth all just unraveled. It was very disgusting. It probably took me the greater part of a bell to get the detritus off my cloak.”

Caeris smiled and tried to sit up. As he did so, he felt a wince and arcs of red pain shoot through Yloth’s aura. “You’re hurt,” he said, frowning.

“Very badly, I’m afraid.”

Caeris turned around and found cloth tied clumsily around Yloth’s hands. He immediately started probing his friend’s arms and chest, looking for more sources of pain. Yloth gasped as he touched his ribs.

“With care, please,” Yloth said.

“You’ve probably cracked a rib, too.”

“Well, probably,” Yloth chuckled. “I believe I’ll live, though.”

As Caeris paused in his examination, he found himself very close to his companion. Their breaths mingled and Yloth was looking at him very carefully. Before he could change his mind, Caeris closed the space between them and shared a very deep, very tender kiss with his colleague. His aura reached out instinctively, pools of light approaching, and then entangling, themselves in phosphorous clouds of blue. The colors mixed where they touched, swirling in shapes both mystical and mundane. He felt Yloth’s pain, and at the same time lent his strength, quieting the burns on his comrade’s hands, the constriction in his chest. As they disengaged, Caeris leaned forward so that their foreheads touched.

“Well, had I known what it would have taken to awaken your powers –” Yloth began.

Caeris put a finger to the other’s lips. “I’ve missed you,” he said quietly.

“As I have you.”

They remained still in that position, neither moving, just breathing in each other’s breaths.

“What does this even mean?” Caeris asked, feeling unsettled. He was reminded of the dream from earlier in the day. Was he making another mistake? But he hadn’t realized how long his heart had been aching, up until this very moment.

It was Yloth’s turn to bring his hand up to brush Caeris’ cheek. “It can mean whatever we want it to,” the man said. “We were very young, back in school. And perhaps one of us did not rightly appreciate what was given to him. He has come to understand that, after sufficient time.”

Caeris kissed him again, the anxiety in his chest easing. “Marcellon will not approve of two students engaging in this kind of behavior.”

“He’s still recovering,” Yloth sighed.

Caeris grimaced. “It’s going to take while. But Alrik will not object to us …”

Yloth smiled slightly, and they continued to talk softly, their voices a gentle counterpoint to the nocturnal sounds within the woods of Gor Gariner.

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