The Magic Portal
“If I don’t do something soon, my life is as good as over,” Briana thought. She was a sylph of a girl; barely twenty, slender as a reed, and with long flaming red hair like her mother. Pale skin; large, deep green eyes. In the fashion of all proper young ladies, she wore brown leggings, tunic, and cloak.
Briana shook her head. How could she have been so stupid? So stupid as to sign a contract for marriage after only a single day of attention, some smooth, flattering words, and three glasses of wine. And betrothed to Slammert of all people. The worst possible choice — so disgusting, so coarse.
Everyone could talk about nothing else when it was finally disclosed what he had done to his first wife. At the time of her mistake, Briana had not known. At the harvest festival, sitting with his bride up on the dais in the feasting hall, Slammert had ripped her bodice away and fondled her bare breasts while his minions watched and roared with laughter. The next morning, they discovered the unfortunate girl had hanged herself, one of her belts tight around her neck and her body stiff like a slaughtered lamb.
Briana grasped the chairback of the wizard seated in front of her to bring her focus to what was happening now. The massive round table in the center of the council chamber had been removed to make more room for spectators. Alodar, her father and Archimage sat in the very center of the row of chairs, leaning forward, as eager as the rest. On either side like pieces in a board game were arrayed the most senior practitioners throughout all of Murdina: thaumaturges, alchemists, magicians, sorcerers, and wizards. From Procolon, the Southern Kingdoms, and even Arcadia across the Great Ocean. Everyone seated wore their robes of office: scarlet red for the archimage, brown, white, deepest blue, gray, and black for the others. At the far left, she even recognized one of her childhood tutors: Fordine, the Master Thaumaturge.
The finery denoted in which of the distinct crafts each master was proficient, but even without them, one could tell. The eyes of the sorcerers were deep and piercing, able to enchant others with their charms and see far in space and time. Haughty and unyielding as steel, the faces of the wizards seemed almost to dare demons from another realm to challenge them for dominance.
Although they wore pristine and unblemished garb reserved for ceremony, the alchemists’ hands were soiled and blotched with stains from the exotic substances they manipulated to produce sweetbalms and potions of love. The magicians had a faraway look, always contemplating the rituals from which came the swords, mirrors, and rings of true magic.
The lowly thaumaturges were the friendly ones, eager artisans hoping for a few coins in exchange for raising heavy beams to the top of a new tower or causing trees to drop their fruit all on the same day. Only Fordine was different. He had been brilliant with counterspells in his youth, but practiced no more — instead was quite wealthy running an academy to train apprentices and journeymen for others.
Five distinct skills, each with its own disciplines. Only one, her father, had mastered them all.
The chamber was as somber as a tomb. Wall frescos had long since faded centuries ago. Heavy curtains blocked any incoming daylight. On the other side of the room, tall sconces with multiple arms upraised with flickering candles illuminated a small, hastily constructed platform.
No one spoke.
Standing at the chairback on Briana’s left was a young lordling still in his teens. He flexed his grip and looked nervously about. Obviously, this was his first time.
“It will be all right,” she whispered to him and smiled. “We are only here to emphasize the importance of the masters. All we have to do is stand erect and look serious, no matter what is said.”
She returned her attention to her own thoughts. It was because she was so sheltered, she concluded. Confined within the compound for her protection, her only experiences were simple flirtations with a few of the pages her own age. And when the baron from the far west, a man and not a boy — tall, muscular, smoldering eyes, a beguiling smile. He had said he was lonely and asked if he could dine with her. Of course, she had said yes.
Had her three elder sisters done the same? Anything to get out of the dull, polite conversations with men old enough to be a grandfather. Snap up the first one younger with a pulse. Wed him, see some of the world, have children, perhaps even adventure a bit on their own.
As a muffled chime from a clock in an adjacent room marked the hour, the air in front of the chairs started to shimmer, at first barely perceptible, but then with increasing violence; like smooth water encountering rapids, it distorted more and more until the blank wall behind was no longer visible.
A door took shape within the swirl, solidified, and, after a few moments more, swung open. Briana gasped, as did more than one master, even some nearing a hundred years of experience. Wrapped from head to toe as if for burial, a figure stepped forward and with effort raised one arm in a sign of greeting.
He was shaped like a human in every respect: head, neck, torso, arms and legs, hands and feet, but the coverings hid every feature. Not thin sheets of linen, but bulky strips from what looked like brilliant white woolen blankets swirled around the entire body. No eyes or mouth could be seen. In their place were opaque goggles and below them a circle of thin parchment where there would have been a mouth. Bulky gloves covered his hands. So, this was the purpose of the formal council meeting — a parlay with the one who had brought the tome.
“You may call me Randor, Randor of the Faithful.” A tinny voice in a strange accent vibrated from the paper beneath the glasses. “Do you understand everything in the volume left for you? Are you confident you can work the controls?”
“Yes, the high council has studied the contents,” Alodar answered. “And if your doorway had not appeared so suddenly and unannounced a year ago, they would have no credibility.”
Briana watched the visitor intently as did everyone else. The being must be of such grossness that he dared not appear in his natural form, she thought. In the writings that had been left, there were illustrations of what looked like men — beings that could easily pass without notice here on Murdina. But there were no pictures of any other type of creature, no hint of what unwinding the swathing would reveal.
She should not even have been allowed to see the book after it was deposited in the great library for study by the masters, but the page had told her how to bypass the safeguards for a single kiss. She had spent many late evenings reading and rereading what the tome contained.
“I have asked you a direct question,” the visitor said. “I expect a direct answer.”
“We have questions as well.” Alodar’s tone hardened. “Why did you leave this book with us that speaks of another world in the cosmos? Is that where you are from?”
“Two questions rather than a single answer,” Randor said. “Your race is an impertinent one.” One of the enveloped hands waved the concern away. “But no matter. It is one of the reasons why you were chosen.
“Our entire race is not exiled on the orb of which I speak. We, the Faithful, remain pure. Only the vanquished of my kind, the ones who call themselves the Heretics Who Proclaim the Truth, have been imprisoned on the hellish world described in the text. The descriptions in the tome concern only the primitive natives, not ourselves. We judged that such information would make your own journeys more efficient. You would not have to spend time relearning what we had gleaned from so many trips ourselves.”
“Heretics?” Alodar asked. “Our own journeys?”
“The heretical crimes committed by those now banished is a matter of no concern to you. And yes, we, the Faithful, have made the journey many times, once every hundred or so of your years for some ten times or more. Now, we grow, let us say … less able to guard against the possibility of the return of contamination.”
“Over a millennium!” the magicians with the neatly trimmed goatee exclaimed. “You live that long?”
“No, as individuals, we normally do not. Only the exiles wear rings of eternal youth — and only if they so elect.”
“A ring of eternal youth!” The magician grabbed at his beard. “Then the suspicion in our guilds is correct. One can be made! Your magicians have done so. What is the ritual? How is it performed?”
“Some say we should have killed them.” Randor ignored the outburst. “But that would be only a passing satisfaction. Instead, as of our last visit, the Heretics remain imprisoned as we planned. Originally eleven hundred were entombed; now only some seven hundred are still alive.
“Death is swift and is but a shadow of the agony of an eternity of captivity. Death is too gentle a fate for what they continue to experience. The only way they could escape from their confinement is by the use of one of the crafts. And for that, our sorcerers enchanted them all, forced them to forget everything they knew about any of the arts when they were defeated. By now, the despair of their situation should have caused them to end their existences by their own hands. It is exquisite for us to contemplate. Ones so proud reduced to ending defiance by the exercise of their own crumbling will.”
The strange one adjusted his swathing for a moment. “Some have already done so, but not yet all. Some still remain.”
“If they have remained in captivity for so long, then why not accept the situation for what it is?” asked the wizard seated in front of Briana. “Not bother to check on how they fare anymore?”
Randor hesitated a second time. “Because,” he said at last. “Because there is a possibility, however slight, that the sorcery might wear off. The skill in the arts by the Heretics might eventually return. Return gradually, and then, using magic, they might escape.
“The natives of the orb are quite backward,” he continued. “As far as we have detected, they employ none of the arts at all. So, evidence of a large enough use of the crafts by the Heretics before they had regained their full power would be a trigger — a trigger to take more drastic action against them. The chances are small, but all of us that remain are too… too engrossed with other things to continue with the task.
“And so, here is our proposition. Moving among the natives will be no problem for your kind. That is one reason why you have been selected. All we ask you to do is to check periodically for evidence of any incantations, charms, or other spells, and then do what is necessary to snuff out the practices.
“Catch the banished as they emerge. It will be easy enough using the mature proficiency of your own crafts. In exchange, this magic portal is for yours to use according to your own desires. In an instant, you will be able to travel across your great ocean for a meeting such as this. Send crops or even men-at-arms to wherever they are needed with but a few steps anywhere within our entire realm.”
“But the writings say only a single person can use the portal at one time,” Briana burst out. “To transport an army would take days.”
All the masters in the room turned to stare at Briana, now very well aware of her presence. “Oops! Sorry, Dad!” She blushed.
Alodar frowned, but chose for the moment to ignore the interruption. He returned his gaze to the bundled visitor.
“If what you say is true, this portal has great power,” he said. “Great disruptive power for any society using it — perhaps a curse rather than a boon.” He looked at the masters seated around him. “Is this truly what we want? Is it any better than a bargain with demonkind?”
“It is most ingenious magic,” Randor said. “The door at one end of the portal is in our realm — our own universe — yours and mine . Although the traveler is unaware of it, the central portion of the device travels through the realm of demons while preventing any contact with the vile beings who dwell there. There is no bargaining with them involved at all.”
“The path then loops back to a destination of one’s choosing — possibly even one that we could reach by other means,” Randor continued. “By placing the two entrances properly in our realm, we can connect them to what seems like mere paces apart, a shortcut regardless of how long the journey might otherwise be.
The two doors do not even need to be situated on the same orb within our realm,” Randor plowed on. “I come from my home to your earth here. We desire you to travel from here to yet a third orb in the sky.”
“Yes, I understand it now,” an alchemist said. “The opportunity to explore. A chance to visit other worlds, exchange formulas and harvest exotic ingredients that here are rare.”
“Trade and exchange,” a thaumaturge chimed in. “Murdina could become the commercial center for our entire universe. We all would prosper. This Randor says that their internal politics are no concern of ours. I agree. The chance for great benefit is too great.”
“Progress cannot be stopped, Archimage Alodar,” Fordine said. “One way or another, each step forward has to be addressed, and undesirable consequences dealt with when they occur. As you and this high council have done many times before.”
Alodar was silent for a long while. He lowered his chin onto his chest to think.
What decisions her father had to make all the time, Briana thought. No wonder he has become so tired and overworked — so irrational in some of his decisions. He needed help. Why couldn’t he see she was the one who should be his aide?
“It is decided,” the Archimage said finally, raising his head. “We accept the offer.”
The masters around Alodar began burbling like brooks breaking the surface for the very first time. No voice raised in objection.
Briana’s thoughts raced. A possible way out of her predicament! This was an easy task. She remembered the instructions about controlling the portal. They were quite simple. Snoop around a few places to see if there was any craft being performed and report. A two or three-day job at the most. Perhaps this could be the task opening her father’s eyes to how useful she could be. Enough of a reason for him to declare her marriage contract void.
“When will you make the first journey?” the visitor asked.
“The traveler has not yet been chosen,” Alodar said, a hint of irritation entering his voice. “But he will be soon enough to satisfy your desire.”
“Then I return now to my peers. Their purity will refresh. The parchments given to you contain the coordinates of the world that imprisons the exiles.”
Without anything further, Randor returned the portal and shut the door. It shimmered again for a moment and then was still.
Alodar stood and faced the masters. “We will meet again in seven days. Bring with you candidates for who is to be the journey-taker. We will discuss and then decide.”
A page entered the chamber and gave a note to the Archimage. He read it and scowled.
He looked in the direction of the wizard on the far right. “All are dismissed — all except one, that is. Briana, please remain. Your fiancé is here on an unannounced visit.