46. Silver mirror, golden throne
30th of Neth – Fireday – 70th day in Varisia
We had dinner at our own local sailors’ inn at the Dockway, the Quick Fox. Despite the bone-chilling wind from the sea, our mood was up and light, thanks to the episode at Garnet’s and our spending spree later that day. Alice had found something extraordinary – a cracked, rose-red ioun stone – and it hovered around her head in slow circles. I did not ask what its purpose was. It was weird if fitting for the young magus. Alfred sported a new black, wide-brimmed hat of a wanderer he said offered as good protection as a steel helmet or my skull mask. It was magical so I had no reason not to believe him. To replace my shocking steel gladius, I had ordered one forged of cold-iron and enchanted with the power to harm extradimensional beings. Having heard of the minions of Karzoug and having seen what little effect Alice’s lightning magics had on demons, I considered my decision to be sensible. In addition, the fire enchantments of the Carmine Avenger were being strengthened. I admit, being away from my bow felt unnatural.
“What’s next”, Alfred smiled behind a platter of the finest fish the inn had to offer and a massive flagon of beer. The fish wasn’t as good as Ameiko’s sushi but it was good enough. The notes I had hurriedly written under Sandpoint, the verses of Xaliasa as we called them, were laid out before us on our dinner table. We were in a rather private booth, allowing us to talk without shouting despite the typical Fireday’s drunken, bawdy celebration around us.
“We’ll wait for a few days for our weapons and armor to be completed”, I said to the sellsword levelly. “But beyond that, I mean”, Alfred specified. He was eager for more adventure, and gold. To that, I had nothing to offer. Or I did, and it involved trust and one member of our party, but I still struggled with the implementation of the idea.
Harsk reached out with his hand and examined one piece of paper that had the complete poem. He read out loud. “On eastern shores of steaming mirror, at end of day when dusk is nearer, where seven faces silent wait encircled guards at Runeforge gate.” He lowered the paper and looked at us. “Has anyone heard of a steaming mirror that has shores?”
Something lit in Alfred’s eyes and he slammed his palm on the table, making the platters, cutlery and tankards tremble. “Ha! I get it!” Everybody turned to him.
“Steaming mirror. There’s a fresh water lake up north beyond Red Mountains, Lurkwood and Velashu Uplands that steams. Name’s Lake Stormunder. The lake hides active geysers, hence the steaming.”
That raised some eyebrows. But then again, he was the most-traveled local in our group. “But the third verse says on ‘frozen mountain Xin awaits, his regal voice the yawning gates’“, I read. “Is there a mountain near Lake Stormunder?”
The sellsword gave me a wide smile and took a long swig from his flagon before answering, enjoying his moment. “Dear half-elf, the lake is spread on the foot of the western face of Kodar mountains!”
Still, I pressed on. “But how big is the lake?” He saw where I was getting at. “Hundreds of square miles.”
“So we have what, twenty, thirty miles of shoreline to explore?” It was obvious we needed more information. But it was a start. I pulled the map of Varisia from my backpack and spread it over the notes. Alfred pointed out the lake.
Harsk eyed the map and rubbed his bearded chin, lost in thoughts. “We’d be heading out close to home”, he muttered aloud. “I should go see my sister”, he said with a twinkling of a smile. “We haven’t seen in decades. And she hasn’t replied to any of my letters”, he added, and the smile faded. “Must be thanks to my brother-in-law.” No-one pushed the matter, but Alfred guffawed. “I’m from up north too.”
“Kah, no wonder we’ve come along so well”, Harsk beamed and the man and the dwarf clanged their flagons together for a toast. “Indeed. With northern ale have your sorrows stowed..” Alfred began something of a saying, “..and keep your insides thawed”, Harsk finished. The men laughed and drank. I exchanged amused, curious glances with Alice.
“I suppose you’re from there as well?” I asked her. She shook her head and at the map pointed at Korvosa, the rival city-state of Magnimar. “I was born there, but I consider myself Magnimarian.” I took it she had lived longer in the City of Monuments.
“Are you two familiar with the lands between here and Lake Stormunder”, I asked and had myself some cooked salmon. Harsk shrugged. “I did not linger when I originally travelled here. There’s a road from Brinewall to Riddleport at the coast.” I had heard of Riddleport. A cesspit it had been called. Haven for criminals, pirates, bandits. I did not wonder why the god-touched had only traveled through. Alfred was nodding. “We’re better off taking that road too, and then getting off the road and circling around Red Mountains through the plains of Nolands.”
I examined the route on the map. First by boat to Riddleport, then by land to the lake. “Two weeks?” I asked, and they both nodded. “Or less”, Alfred replied, “depends on weather and the roads. Normal circumstances.”
“Unless”, Alfred turned his head towards Alice who sat next to him, “Alice sweetling here can teleport us.” He was smiling that wench-smile again. Alice was not impressed. “I can’t take us anywhere I haven’t been myself previously.”
“Except ancient black towers and magic-shielded study rooms”, I added the slight with a straight face. She said nothing but raised an eyebrow at me. I didn’t know anything about magic really but I got the point – it was a different trick to instantly travel hundreds of miles than to jump through dimensions to reach a place you saw with your own eyes.
“But that’s where we are going, isn’t it”, Harsk stated. He had a divine reason to stop the evil that lurked in the Kodar Mountains. Alfred drank a long swig and swept his mouth clean of foam with the back of his hand. “Can’t leave a job undone, eh?” Alice just smiled and nodded. I guess she had that same adventurer streak as Alfred, spiced by some plain old curiosity. I sighed and said nothing.
“Great. I’ll need to take a piss”, Harsk concluded the matter and rose to leave.
I intercepted the dwarf halfway from the pots to our booth. “I need to talk to you, in private”, I whispered to his ear over the commotion. I looked back and saw Alfred and Alice engaged in a discussion – or Alfred was going about it in a lively manner and Alice was listening, looking bored. The inn was crowded but I spotted a vacant booth. “Sure, lead the way”, Harsk said and I did.
“So, what’s the matter”, he asked when we took our seats before each other. I had another look around, made sure no-one was listening and leaned closer. I had rehearsed this discussion a dozen times over the past few weeks. I cleared my throat to clear my head.
“We’ve known each other for a short while only, but I guess you’ve come to know me as a person who doesn’t shed too much light on his private matters”, I began. Still, my throat felt dry. It was strange how I could throw myself in melee against a demon but my confidence would falter in a discussion with a friend. I fought back the urge to get up and stop what I was doing. Harsk just nodded, expecting me to go on. I considered my words – the same I had went through so many times over before. “The people who I genuinely have trusted in my life number the fingers of my right hand. I’d like to think you as one of them.” Admitting it was difficult, but it was true. Before me Harsk beamed his fatherly smile. “I value your trust and can say with my whole heart that the feeling is mutual.” A darker side of me snorted and called the dwarf a fool for it. I pushed the thought away. The immovable dams in my mind were opening, and every word was easier. “What I tell you now, and what I would ask you for a favor, is something only one other person in Golarion knows.” The smile of Harsk’s lips faded, only to be replaced by a suitably serious frown.
“Do you remember the magic tricks we endured last time we were in Magnimar? The mind-seeking and reading attempts”, I asked him. They had not returned but back then, each of us had been probed, probably by Mokmurian, or one of his lackeys. The one who had searched us had spanned miles across Varisia with his or her mind.
“I do”, Harsk said simply. I nodded. “Would you be able to cast a similar spell?”
That made the cleric lean back. With his gaze he tried to search mine and find any malign, unlawful intent there. I was staring back intently, honestly, I hoped. “Yes, I believe so”, he finally said. A boulder fell from my back. “Let me explain why I’d need you to use such magics.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes. My heart was racing as if I was in the middle of a battle. The carmine lady’s words of wisdom echoed in my mind.
You have to trust some people, Alpharius.
Looking around one more time, I willed myself to begin. “Seven years ago, I lost my twin brother Macharius.”
Harsk listened without comment as I went through the general details of my past, a story I had trusted only to a young noblewoman in Nirmanthas before him. The childhood in a backwater village in Molthune. The slavery. Macharius’s suicide mission and disappearance. My escape. I did not go through my travels around Lake Encarthan as it wasn’t really necessary, but mentioned that I had been searching for my brother for the past years. How I had nearly given up hope, but how Jakardros and the Black Arrows had brought to light the fact that Macharius had truly been still alive only months ago, and traversing Varisia of all places in Golarion.
“You are a powerful magic-wielder, strengthened by your extraordinary link with your goddess – and that is why I now turn to you. Never before have I tried magic in my search – lack of gold to pay for it being one reason, but my lack of trust being the first.” I looked him straight in the eye. “Harsk, can you look for my brother?” I ended my monologue with a plead. Whatever his answer was, my soul felt brighter, the burden of secrecy a little more lighter.
He did not hesitate with his answer. “Of course I can. I must pray to my goddess and consult with my brothers and sisters at the Cathedral, but I will do it discretely. I am sure we can find a way.”
I offered him my hand and he took it, clasping my arm like brothers-at-arms do. “Thank you, my friend”, I said with a trembling voice and we shook hands. I was not used to owing a debt of gratitude to anyone. Even less, I was not used calling anyone a friend. I admit it all made me uneasy.
Still, the dwarf’s words melted some of the clouds of my doubt. “Anything for a friend”, he replied.
A few idle days went by. Alice had somehow been able to reroll back to the Mage School and was spending her days being tutored in the arts of the arcane. She chose to live at the Dockways instead of the Kaijitsu Manor, so I saw very little of her. Alfred was boozing and whoring his way through the Shore like a raging thunderstorm, so I saw very little of him too. I think he was getting almost religious in his drinking, and he began to talk about Cayden Cailean, the drunken god, the times we ran into each other.
Harsk spent his time at the Cathedral. One morning, as we shared breakfast, he told me the news. He had acquired the necessary instruments from the Cathedral and was ready to begin the spell casting, if I was willing. Of course I was ready.
He called the spell greater scrying. Something to discover, to reveal. I considered it an apt name.
We went into my room in the first floor of the manor. I had the biggest bedroom which also had a square shaped writing table, and Harsk took out a silver mirror he had loaned from his fellow followers. It was a foot wide and circular, and he placed on the table, mirror side up. It looked expensive.
“For this to work, I need to know as much as possible about your brother”, he started to explain. “In an ideal situation, I would know him personally. That or I’d have a lock of his hair, or at least a picture of him.” I snorted. “Just look at me, and imagine I have frost blue eyes and silver hair. And no facial scars”, I offered. That made the cleric smile. “That is actually helpful, given that you are twins. Now give me your hands. Tell me more about him.” Again, we locked both our arms together over the mirror like paladin-brothers, and I began to recount facts about my brother. Things about his character. How he thought, how he acted. How he followed Pharasma. How he trained, and how he preferred the greatsword. Harsk took it all in, nodding. Finally, he closed his eyes. “Let us try a connection.”
There were no hurricanes of magical powers, no shows of holy lights. No electrical discharges, no explosions of fire. Harsk began to murmur a prayer to Iomedae, and the mirror went black.
He stopped the prayer, and exhaled once through his nose. I stood there before him, our arms clasped, waiting with my mouth open like an idiot.
Then the mirror stirred, physically. Just a little. My heart almost made a sudden exit through my chest.
“I’m seeing something..” Harsk began carefully. His eyes were tightly shut as he concentrated. My mind reeled. I was not breathing. After all these years, I would reconnect with my brother, even if I could not say a word to him..
“My lady!” He exclaimed the soft curse and opened his eyes. It wasn’t good. “I’m sorry, Alpharius, but I lost the connection before I could see anything.”
I felt like someone had stabbed me in the gut and rammed the air out of my lungs at the same time. “What does it mean”, I asked, barely whispering. He pursed his lips. “It might be anything. His will might be resisting my scrying, just like we did. Or he might be in a place that is warded from such attempts. Or he might be on another plane. Or..” His words trailed into nothingness, but I took the hint. “Or he might be dead”, I said for him. He nodded, respecting me by being honest.
“This is such a demanding spell, that I can try this only once per day. We will try again tomorrow, shall we?” I let go of his arms. “I would appreciate it.”
We tried every morning. And failed every time. I was already losing my hope, when on the ninth day, 13th of Kuthona, we had a breakthrough.
“Thank you my goddess”, Harsk whispered. Our arms were clasped. The mirror between us was black. I could not see anything in it, so I had my eyes firmly closed too. “Finally.” I heard the smile on Harsk’s voice.
“I’m seeing a man, lounging on a extravagantly decorated golden throne.. surrounded by riches, gold, gems, rubies.” I wanted to bury him in an avalanche of questions but I found I could not speak. The cleric considered his next words carefully. “He looks.. tired. Withdrawn and sullen. Like a man aged beyond his years. But.. I can see the resemblance.”
“He has a greatsword across his lap. A golden sword.”
“My brother”, I said, my trembling lips forming a weak smile and choked immediately. He’s still alive. A single tear fell down my scarred cheek and I shut my eyes tighter. My fingers pressed around Harsk’s arms. I willed myself to get my act together and cleared my throat. “Where is he, can you see it?” I said with a rasping voice.
“He is in a throne room. I can’t make out any windows. Gods, I have not seen so rich decoration in my life.” This planted the first seed of doubt in my head. Why was he there? “There is a red carpet on the floor, and rubies are sewn to it. The riches.. they seem to have no meaning to him. He is lost in his thoughts.”
“If he is so wealthy, why hasn’t he come to me, why hasn’t he found me”, the desperate question that of a little boy slipped out. “I can’t say”, the dwarf replied.
I wanted more information. Something tangible. Something to help in the search. “How long can we keep the connection?”
“For hours, if nothing outside actively tries to disturb it”, he replied. That is good, I thought. “I want to see what he does. If he moves to someplace from which we can deduce his exact location.”
We waited for six hours. All that time he did not move. I was flabbergasted. This was not like my brother, he would not sit around in a golden throne and play the bored king. Every now and then, Harsk told me Macharius murmured something to someone, or himself, the cleric could not tell. He guessed my brother was talking to his goddess Pharasma, but I did not find it likely. My mood darkened and fears gathered like vultures to a corpse. I finally let go exasperated, and told Harsk to close his connection. The relief and joy of knowing he was alive was drowned by a flood of questions and uncertainty.
“My brother loved to train to fight, to improve his stamina. This is unlike of him to sit around doing nothing”, I spat between gritted teeth. The thought occurred to me. “Maybe he is a prisoner?” Harsk shook his head. “If he is, then he has the most luxurious cell I’ve ever seen..”
If he is, his captor will die a slow, agonizing death, I made the oath in my mind.
And his demeanor, I thought. So unbecoming of him. I was the brooding killer. He was the livelier bladesman. His body handled alcohol as badly as mine did but I could still see him making friends with the types of Alfred much, much easily than I did.
The realization was like a hammer hitting anvil. What if the difficulty of finding and reconnecting with him was not about the miles but about the years that separated us? What if he had changed as a man?
What if the reason he sat there alone among the riches was that he didn’t want to find me, and he didn’t want me to find him?
The grim thought chilled me to the core of my being.