59. Crossing the boundary
1st of Gozran – Moonday – 190th day in Varisia
Kaijitsu Manor, Magnimar
Behind me, Saffron was swearing in a strange language, repeating the same word over and over, but from the tone of her voice I knew her attempt had failed. “I’ll get myself a drink”, Alfred informed us and got up from his seat, very much bored and thirsty even though it wasn’t even midday yet. Alice looked lost in her thoughts while Harsk merely let out a long sigh and stroke his beard. We had gathered around in the library room of the manor, where the red-headed witch had set up a space for the scrying. “You’re not trying?” I asked Harsk, remaining on my knees on the planked floor, surrounded by burning oils and candles. The god-touched shook his head. “There’s no use. I can’t teleport us – she needs to see herself where to take us.”
“Fine”, I told him and rose to my feet. I called my panther to me, and strode out of the library room and the manor. I had business to take care of.
For weeks I had been toying with the idea of using magic myself. Of course, I used it every day through my weaponry, armour and other equipment, but I had been thinking about performing acts that needed some skill. Using wands, to be exact. Ilori had used many before her death, and I had heard of the many possibilities magical wands offered. Thanks to my recent experiences my attitude towards magic and its use had been severely altered in the past months. I still had doubts, but I had learned it, like many other things in the world, was a two-sided coin. I had warmed up to the idea of training myself in its use.
I went to the Mage Tower in Lower Magnimar, and informed an old wizard who came to welcome me of my situation and desires. I was after a specific spell, one called Gravity Bow, that would make my arrows hit their targets harder, as if they were arrows of a giant rather than half-elf. This spell could be stored in a wand and magicked unto a bow, if one had the proper training in the usage of wands. I paid a hefty sum for my wand and for the on-the-spot training that took the better part of the day. I figured the technique out pretty quickly – it was a combination of wrist movement, focus and pronunciation of the magic words. I had no misconceptions about my skills however – I decided that I would not try to activate the wand in the heat of battle, but rather always when danger was imminent and there was time to prepare. The spell’s effect would last for three minutes, the young magi said who sold me the wand and handled the training. Three minutes in combat was a lifetime.
When I returned to Kaijitsu Manor later that evening, I was surprised to see Saffron. She didn’t spend much time in Magnimar, preferring her hut and wherever she went when she was away, but this time she was lounging in the library room with the pale-faced magus, chatting idly. It seemed like they were killing time.
“Nice wand”, Alice pointed out the item in my belt, immediately sensing the new magics emanating from me and being clearly amused about it. “Didn’t take you for a magic-wielder.”
“I’m full of surprises”, I said simply and turned to Saffron. “What are you still doing here?”
The red-headed witch clapped her hands together and held them there, like people who have something really interesting to tell. “Master Alpharius, we have come up with a most cunning plan to find Xin-Shalast with Miss Alice here.” Her yellow eyes were beaming and she shared a knowing smile with the magus. I gave her my expectant face and let her go own.
“See, elemental energies flow through all matter in the Material Plane, as they have done since the dawn of time. They are neither good nor evil, they merely are, and they in essence connect the world.”
“I have the elemental power of fire coursing through my body, so I’m aware of them”, I told her, already bored. “Yes yes, a most fascinating characteristic of yours. You possess the powers of fire, Alfred earth, Harsk water, Alice here air-”
“Can we get to the point please?”
“Of course!” Saffron drew breath. “What we realized was that instead of searching the Kodars by air ourselves, we could summon a being who is connected to the hidden corners of the world in a way we aren’t, and can fly indefinitely.”
I looked at her blankly.
“We summoned an air elemental to do our bidding!” Saffron exclaimed happily. Alice took over. “Basically, we told it to search for Xin-Shalast.”
I wasn’t impressed.
“If it is so simple, why hasn’t someone else done it before?” That made Saffron defensive.
“Well, first of all, summoning an air elemental and binding it to one’s will is not a task anyone could manage.”
“And.. it required a lot of briefing before it could begin”, Alice admitted, finding something interesting at her tips of her toes again. Seeing the ladies hold a lecture to an unfeeling creature of the wind, pointing at maps and into random directions, and spewing everything they knew about Xin-Shalast made me smile inside a bit. I would’ve paid some gold to see it.
“Whatever works”, I said eventually and shrugged. “But why are you still here?” I repeated the question to the witch.
“We’re waiting for the elemental to return”, Alice replied in Saffron’s stead.
“So you have no idea when it comes back.” I half-asked, half-realized. Neither of them commented. “Luckily its a big manor, so you’ll find yourself a room”, I made the offhand remark and turned to retreat to mine. As I left I shouted over my shoulder to the witch. “You can have Alice’s share of the breakfast, now that she doesn’t eat that much, with that ring of hers and all.” I felt the magus stick out her tongue at my back.
The air elemental wasted no time and surprisingly returned the next morning, when we were all at the manor. It was a beautiful, transparent, androgynous creature made of glass-like fog. Its voice was a wind-blow.
“I have found the city”, it began peacefully. Alice and Saffron both chuckled, almost giggled, in satisfaction. “At the headwaters of a river men call Avah, where fire and ice struggle eternally. Unbind me.”
“You need to be more specific”, Alfred made the comment but was silenced by Saffron’s raised hand.
“You shall go free, but first, come to me.” The air elemental drifted across the manor lobby towards the witch, stopping only a half a stride away, bowing its head for Saffron to touch. She placed her palm on the elemental’s featureless head and closed her eyes.
“Yes.. I can see something.. a lake.. and the barren mountains.”
“Is it enough?” Alice asked carefully yet hopefully. Saffron nodded. “Yes, Miss Alice, it is.” Then to the air elemental. “Noble creature of the air, I unbind thee. Thank you for your service. May your winds be strong and air clear and pure.”
A sigh and the elemental was gone.
“If you may, I will begin the preparations for translocation immediately”, Saffron informed us and pulled out a piece of chalk from her cloak pocket. Harsk looked at each of us in turn and smiled at the red-head. “We’re ready.”
After a moment, we teleported.
The air was thin, painfully so, making it almost impossible to breathe. My necklace of adaptation reacted immediately and formed bubble of fresh air around my head. The ground beneath us shook and trembled, like we were riding a giant that tried to shake us loose.
Saffron mouthed a scream and lost her balance, fumbling for her broom. Instinctively I grabbed her arm as did Alfred beside me. We caught the witch before she went tumbling down. Dûath whined beside me, yet he was faring the best thanks to his four paws and eighteen nails all mooring him to the surface. Again, the ground rocked – but it wasn’t ground. We were standing on an uneven slate of ice, surrounded by freezing and boiling waters. Without really thinking, I let go off Saffron, trusting she was not in immediate danger, and reached into a pocket in my bandolier. Alfred stared at me wild-eyed as I went to one knee and placed a single blue feather on the ice beneath us. Like a knocked out bull, it pacified immediately, held in check by the magic of the feather.
“An anchor token”, Saffron gasped, trying to laugh and breathe at the same time. The pirate who had tried to kill me and steal my mammoths had carried it, and now I had found a use for it.
Alice was down on her knees as well, working to breathe. Harsk was up, red-faced, huffing and puffing, mumbling something to himself. “Where the hell are we”, Alfred wheezed. He was right – the place was a hell unto itself. Around us, waters exploded upwards in superheated geysers between other slabs of ice. In other places, water crackled and squeaked as it froze to place in a blink. Here and the rocks like broken fangs of an orc poked out of the mix of steaming waters and ice. River Avah, where fire and ice struggle eternally, the air elemental had said. Indeed.
“I can’t see a city of gold”, Harsk bellowed as the wind picked up, pushing snow into the air. Crystals of ice had already formed to his beard and only then I realized how cold it was. We had to be high up in the mountains. Hook Mountain and its surroundings were hills compared to this. Between tips of jagged mountains, even the sun looked paler, as if unwilling to shed its warmth for us.
“Xin-Shalast is close”, Saffron replied, abnormally sparing her words. I glanced up and away at all directions. To our south, a river – Avah – streamed down. A thin mist covered the air but I could see a mile or so to every other direction. The lake was walled by barren, rock and snow-covered mountainsides. There were no signs of life, no houses, no roads, nothing that could indicate that a settlement of any kind was nearby. Even with my considerably developed eye-sight I couldn’t spot a cave or tunnel mouth in the mountainsides.
“Nothing’s here, absolutely nothing”, I told the others. But I was wrong. Something huge, a beast, roared at the distance, somewhere beyond my vision. I wondered how it could breathe to let out a sound like that.
“This is not good,” Alice said, getting back up and coughed. We were adjusting to the inhospitable environment but spending an extended period of time there was not a thing I was looking forward to. Alfred nodded and pulled his cloak of bear fur further over his shoulders. “We should return to Magnimar”, Alice added. Saffron looked disappointed and forlorn.
I spotted movement and told as much. “Fifty strides, approaching us”, I warned the others, and my right hand went to the mouth of my arrow quiver.
“What is that”, Alice asked, her brow furrowing. My panther was sniffing the air. “A.. a seal?” Alfred suggested. “No, it’s an otter”, I realized. I held my hand. Surely an otter would not pose us any danger? The thick-furred little animal jumped into the strange waters, only to re-emerge to sight and onto a closer slab of rock and ice only forty strides away. It was looking at us intently, curiously even. There was a hint of intelligence in its eyes. Malign or friendly, I could not tell. I wasn’t really keen on finding out.
“If there is no way to continue, we should get the hell out of here”, I made my point. “We could fly?” Harsk suggested. “Where?” I spat the question. The otter was looking at us, but wasn’t moving. “Tell me where you’d lead us towards? There’s nothing here”, I said between my teeth and laid my palm on the frozen ground. With my glove, I watched through the slate and saw nothing but rolling waters and chunks of ice. “The damned otter is the sole living creature here.”
“Maybe it can tell us something”, Saffron uttered and began to cast a spell behind me. I turned and saw her eyes had gone completely white. “I can see through the animal’s eyes..” She whispered, “but.. it’s not.. wait.. that’s strange.” She frowned, cocked her head. “I lost connection.” She jumped on her broomstick. “I’ll have a look from a better vantage point”, she informed us and began hovering up gently. All the while, the otter remained motionless but kept staring at us, as if waiting for our move. Saffron ascended maybe five hundred feet, passing the thin veil of mist, but did not linger up in the heights.
She was pale and trembling when she returned. “The mountains get even higher to the north, but to the south there’s lower ground. But there’s nothing but snow and rock. “
“Let’s go”, Alfred urged us. It was the only sensible choice. We had to find another way.
This time, Alice took us back to Magnimar. I could swear I saw the otter smile and wave at us with its other paw when we left.
We decided to rest and recuperate for the remainder of the day. Third of Gozran dawned as we broke our fast together and contemplated our next move.
“We have to try scrying again”, Saffron pursed her lips. I sighed. She was right, give our limited options. But my weariness stemmed from the fact that I knew Saffron lacked the willpower Harsk had and it was very well possible that she could never succeed. Trying, getting one’s hopes up only for her to fail was like hitting your head against a wall.
Apparently, the god-touched had come to the same conclusion. “Yes we should, but this time I will assist you.” I frowned. How was that even possible?
The witch didn’t like the idea. “No, Master Harsk, you shouldn’t. The risks involved are too great.. your mind might get lost as we cross the boundaries!” The dwarf just smiled. “My will and soul are chained to my lady Iomedae with an unbroken link. Fear not, I will not lose track of you.”
Saffron considered the little bearded man for a moment, but then nodded. “Very well. Perhaps together we can push through.” Harsk was still smiling confidently. “We will, by the grace of my goddess.”
Once again, I sat down on my knees and Saffron placed Harsk’s silver-rimmed looking glass before me. The red-headed witch put her palms on my bare head, and this time, Harsk’s hairy palm went on top of them. “Do not let go under any circumstances, Master Harsk”, Saffron instructed the dwarf seriously.
“I don’t think a scrying has never been tried with two casters before”, I picked up Alice’s whisper to Alfred. It was a risky long shot. We were about to see if it was worth it.
Saffron began to utter words of magic, while Harsk kept silent. From the edge of my vision I saw Alice stiffen and clench her jaws together, as if something was pressing against her. The powers unleashed must had been great, but to a person nonsensitive to magic like me, there was no way I could tell. But then a fire deep within flared, and where Saffron’s hands touched my hair, I felt a tingling feeling. The temperature in the room rose, or so I thought, but it was only me. The fire reacting.
“Yes…” she whispered. The god-touched grunted in effort and his hand stirred. “The veil has been broken. The field becomes transparent. Stay with me, Master Harsk”, Saffron muttered and I could not understand a word. Then she let out a giggle. “I can see. I.. Oh no.”
“What?” I asked, almost jumping up.
“He is fighting.. no. Not fighting. Sparring. Yes, training. With the golden sword, wearing ornate golden armour without a helmet. Against something.. huge. I can’t see what, but his eyes are locked up, very high. He parries.. Heavens that was a massive weapon. How could he parry that? Now he rolls.. just evading a strike.. that is an earthbreaker. He moves past two massive feet.. and.. that is the largest giant I have ever seen. Your brother is.. disappearing and appearing at random intervals.. some kind of displacement spell. And his skin.. it is golden? His face is normal, but there are veins of gold circling up his neck.”
I took it all in, and cold sweat rose to my brow. This was not good. Willingly sparring with giants? His skin covered in gold?
“Now they are finished. The blade rests on his shoulder. He bows to his opponent and turns to leave..” Saffron was silent for a moment. “He walks across a large hall, pushes open a door. He’s outside. There is snow on the ground. He keeps looking up. Passes a massive pillar, then begins to ascend..” The witch stopped talking again.
“What is happening?” I asked anxiously. “He is still pacing a ramp of sorts. It circles around a massive tower of white granite.”
Harsk grunted again and his hand felt heavier on my head. “Are you all right, Master Harsk”, the witch asked behind me. “Fine”, the dwarf replied gruffly. It seemed like it was his will that was piercing whatever defenses my brother had. Like two children, one holding the other on his shoulders so she could see over a high wall.
A minute passed, then another, then a third. Harsk did not falter. My brother, wherever he was, kept walking up a long, endlessly curving ramp up a tower.
“He reaches a door”, Saffron suddenly continued, making me startle. “A golden door, with a sneering man’s face etched on it. He reaches up his hand.. the door opens as his fingers barely touch it. He is on a lobby of white marble floors. He passes more giants as he goes.. enters a new space. More pillars of stone, white and green, to his left and right. A long red carpet beneath his feet, decorated with rubies. He walks along the carpet.. oh, a throne. He paces to it, turns. He.. sighs? Now he sits down on the throne, and places the sword on his lap. He doesn’t look happy, Master Alpharius. He is.. weary, but not of the sparring. He lounges, like he is bored. I think he is talking to someone, or himself, but I can’t hear about what.”
I tried to sound as commanding as possible, but in the end all I could let out was a pleading whisper. “Take us there.”
I felt another sharp tingling feeling as Saffron ended the connection. Harsk let out the longest breath and bowed to rest his hands on his knees. “That was marvelous”, Saffron was beaming. I got up, cleared my throat, found my resoluteness. “Take us there, now.”
“I’m up for it”, Alfred replied, with a big grin. For once I could not blame him for his rashness. My brother was a few words of magic away. “I understand your hurry Master Alpharius”, the witch began carefully, “but we should prepare better before we leave. We might very well end up at the heart of Karzoug’s lair.”
I turned and faced her, pointing an accusing finger. “He was alone, correct? Why should we wait? The time is right!” I think my eyes were blazing in the colours of the wildfire. To her benefit, she did not back down. She just smiled. “He went past a guard troop of giants. Think about it for a moment, Master Alpharius. I’ve been with you for a short while only but already I’ve heard you complain about your lack of tactics and stealth. Why not go to your brother hidden under a shroud of invisibility, hovering in the air where blades cannot reach you? Ensure you have the initiative?”
Damned little girl was right. I rubbed my eyes, my face. “And I guess you could make those things happen?”
“I can prepare the necessary potions for tomorrow morning”, she chirped. “I agree with Saffron”, Alice commented from the back. Alfred snorted. “Rest is good”, Harsk said, still sounding weary from his earlier efforts.
“Gods damnit. Very well”, I relented. One more day. I could live with more one day.
I did not sleep that night, rather paced around the manor and its small estates in the cold dark, like a nervous dog. Thinking about what I would say to him. The possibilities, the outcomes. What would I do if he resisted? What would I do if he would not welcome me? I had never been so frightened in my life. I had never considered the possibility that he would be a foe when I finally found him after all the years of my search. If he was, would’ve it been better that I had found him dead instead? A slain and forgotten slave? A buried hero of the Black Arrows? Anything but a soldier of Karzoug.
No. I knew my brother. He would not exchange one slavemaster to another. There was something dark and nefarious behind it all. I would bring it to light and destroy it. A new dawn rose, and I was ready.
We gathered once more together between Saffron’s chalked runes and she began to weave the spell that would take us to my brother. She was already hovering and invisible, but thanks to the shroud under my armour, I could see her just as well. The others took potions of invisibility and flying as Saffron droned on, and I drained two down Dûath’s throat. I was surprised the animal didn’t panic when he took to the air.
The conjuration reached its end and the moment of translocation was imminent. Cold sweat ran down my scarred cheeks.
Then, blackness, followed by an image of a man sitting on a throne. Then, pain.