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September 23rd, starting at noon.
5943 Balboa Avenue, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92111.
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Angus, the exile, reached behind his head and smoothed down his long, flowing hair. It would reach his waist soon and he would have to have it sheared. A daily ritual of shaving kept his face bare. Black eyes like machined spheres of hematite marked him as cunning to the other Heretics; one to be dealt with only when necessary and then with caution. Only the tips of his fangs showed when his mouth was closed. Nor did his tunic cover his arms as it did most of the others. Rather, he bared them proudly, the thick fur as sufficient as sleeves. When he stood to full height rather than slumped, he was as tall as the natives roaming freely above.
He ran his fingers over the polished wood grain of the orange-brown table, but its beauty gave him little satisfaction. Neither did the expanse of the rocky alcove about him, though it was larger than all but two others. More than three times his height, its smooth walls rippled like waves on a placid sea, a wrinkled bubble of air far beneath the ocean’s surface.
Small flakes of gold shimmered in a narrow vein snaking above Angus’ head. Flickering candles standing in indentations chiseled into the walls gave only enough light so that the objects on the tabletop could be seen, but the rest of the alcove was in shadow. The wax was too precious to waste on reminding one of the crushing reality of confinement.
Untold hours had been spent by the Heretics chipping away at the alcove floor to create the flat space on which the table stood and a pathway to a small oval opening leading to more caverns and twisty passageways beyond. Caverns and passageways—the entire world of the vanquished, the exiles, the Heretics Who Proclaim the Truth.
Angus looked at the small clock on the tabletop, its pendulum swinging back and forth in frantic haste, far faster than the glacial slowness the humans used to mark their time.
The humans. The puny, primitive humans. If they knew of his true status and that of the others of his kind, they would be laughing. He was a powerful alchemist. His brothers were potent practitioners of the crafts as well. Unfettered, subjugations of the surface dwellers would be easy. Yet despite this power, they hopelessly were confined in underground caverns. And so fearful that any use of the magics would alert the so-called Faithful, the oppressors who put them here, his brothers insisted no craft be practiced at all.
The Faithful. Faithful to what? What an ill-fitting label. Sheep that move from one fad to the next with only the slightest prodding. The merest hint that something new was going to be more popular than what had come before. The idiots did not think, did not consider, did not engage with exercises of the mind.
But then, it was no better here. Dinton, his eldest brother, how could he be so stubborn, so unseeing, so afraid? Whenever he had possession of the baton, the depression of the flock members always increased. There was always the risk one or more would remove their rings and surrender—unable to accept who knows how much longer—more centuries encased in rock before they might possibly be free.
Dinton and Thaling would be here shortly, so Angus shoved the thoughts away. As always, Dinton would arrive first; Thaling would be the last to appear—the diplomat, his middle brother with the glib words to douse the rising anger boiling between Dinton and himself. Never venturing opinions of his own so they too could be attacked. His two, so unalike brothers. He wondered how much longer he could keep his secret from them.
Without preamble, Dinton entered the alcove, breaking through Angus’ reverie. He was shorter but broader like an over ripe gourd. His hair also cascaded to his waist behind, but rather than the uniform dull brown of Angus, the roots showed silver. Even in the dimness, his eyes squinted nearly shut, as if he were afraid to let anything from the outside accost his senses. His fangs did not protrude. A long rod of polished wood hung from his waist on one side and a short dagger from the other. He carried a colored cardboard box in his hand.
“You have gone above again, haven’t you?” Dinton said without preamble. He slapped the staff at his side. “Even when I explicitly forbade it while the baton is mine.”
Angus glanced up at Dinton, but did not rise. His brother’s time as agreed upon absolute leader was almost over. Let him feel a little more aggravation before it was finished.
“We have been over this many times before,” Angus said. “A grandfather over a hundred native years ago, and then his grandson when his elder was soon to pass. They are the only two of which I have interacted. There is no way any other of these primitives would find out about the trades I have made.”
“It is not the natives I worry about,” Dinton thundered as if were orating to everyone in the caverns at once. “It is the oppressive ones, the Faithful, the ones who overwhelmed us and cast us out. If they discover there is traffic with those who call themselves humans, or that the charm placed upon us has worn off, or if any new exercise of craft is detected, their next punishment will be even worse than this. We all would be given to the tigerwasps. All of us. Continual pain with no release.”
Angus prided himself on how he carried himself in the caverns—back straight as a sheer cliff, untroubled by any threat unless directly challenged to a duel one-to-one. But every time he thought of the wasps, he could not help but wince.
His eyes closed nearly shut and his cheeks stretched high on his face. “We should have destroyed the colony of the loathsome pests long ago,” he shuddered. “The Faithful left those huge beasts with us so we would come to use them on ourselves—even when there was the most petty bickering.”
Dinton nodded slowly. He cleared his throat before speaking as he often did. “What the feeling would be, I, too, find it hard to think about. Boring into one’s stomach and then consuming the organs from the inside—slowly and carefully, leaving only enough of each to continue functioning until the very last.”
“But it is the ultimate deterrent,” Dinton continued before Angus could reply. “No one dares to commit a capital crime. The punishment would be too great. For the thousand years we have been here, the tigerwasps have been employed only twice.”
“Count the rings in your alcove,” Angus ignored Dinton’s words. His brother had a tendency to run on and on. “How many do they number now? Haven’t more than three hundred already taken their own lives, from their loss in either a half-heartedly fought duel or an overwhelming sadness they can no longer put away? What good does it do to wait any longer? Soon there will be none of us left, and then it will not matter.”
“We must have patience,” Dinton answered. Now his eyes were totally shut. “The primitives are accelerating the destruction of their world. In a few hundred more orbits about their star, they all will be gone and this entire planet will be ours.”
“This entire hell-hole, you mean,” Angus snapped back. “Of what use is it to us, if we must remain below the surface even after the humans are gone?”
Angus waved his arm around his alcove. “And while we wait, what do we have to bring us joy? A meandering collection of lava tubes and gas bubbles. Small cracks in the surface to let in sunlight for our crops, a trickle of water from the rains above. No sky overhead, no wind. Once every nook had been explored two or three times over, only numbness is left.”
“Back on the home world,” Dinton put a tone of considered reasoning into his voice, “our so-called heresies were a matter of debate— the beliefs of one flock against those of another. But here, the risk of discovery is unforgiveable. Your dabbling, the skirting on the edge of safety must stop.” The sound of the orator resumed. “I have commanded it. Stop or else.”
“Or else, what?”
“Or else the wasps.”
“Yet, you enjoy an even bigger table than this one in your alcove,” Angus said. “Without what I have done, how could these little tastes of beauty even have been possible? The monotony would indeed be complete.”
“Mere shadows,” Dinton scoffed. “Native trinkets with no depth of meaning.”
“Trinkets!” Angus shouted. “The objects I have obtained at great peril, mere trinkets?” With a snarl, he withdrew the dagger from his waist. “I’ll show you a trinket. But first, you will have to remove it from your gut!”
“You are the youngest, Angus,” Dinton growled. The box he was carrying dropped to the floor and flew open. Cards and tokens scattered about. Ignoring the mess, he drew his knife in reply, his eyes now wide open and glaring. “You are the youngest, Angus, if only for a few moments more.”
“Stop!” a third voice interrupted the argument. “What is it this time?” Thaling rushed in and placed restraining hands on his brothers’ arms. “We have made the agreement that we will not succumb to our baser emotions when we meet. We are to decide who will possess the baton for the next turn of the wheel of time. Nothing more. Why is that so hard to remember?”
Thaling was the shortest of the three, hunched over like a rat trying to walk on only its hind legs. Long fangs protruding from his lips interfered with his speech, but his brothers had grown used to his slurs. As adults, they no longer jeered when he tried to mouth human words.
For a few heartbeats, Angus and Dinton stared at each other. Like two feuding children, they played at who would resheath his weapon first. Finally, Angus sighed in exasperation and plunged his into its scabbard. Dinton waited a moment longer, smiled, and put his away as well.
“If only father had publically chosen one of us before he gave into the monotony and took his own life,” Thaling said. He straightened up as best he could. “We would have no need for the periodic bickering and waste of time.”
“Yes, certainly,” Angus said. “Our daily schedules are so very busy, that we can hardly find a few moments for this stupid ceremony.”
“We have agreed,” Thaling said, his slur more noticeable when he became excited. “It is the only thing that has kept us from destroying all of ourselves in a struggle to determine who was to rule.”
“I am the eldest,” Dinton said. “By rights, it should have been me.”
“We made an agreement,” Thaling pleaded. “Why do we have to go through with this each and every time?”
“If Dinton would only stop harping about being the oldest—” Angus began.
“I choose my words carefully each time I speak,” Dinton cut in. “You are the one who pollutes the air with your hot-headed outbursts.”
“Enough,” Thaling shouted. “To the business at hand.”
“You are not yet the holder of the baton,” Dinton turned his attention to Thaling and withdrew his dagger again. “You cannot give me commands. I demand the respect that is my due.”
“I do not cower to words that are merely loud,” Angus said as he brandished his stiletto as well.
Thaling took a step backward and bared his own knife. “So this is the way of cowards? Rather than duel properly, instead, gang up two against one?” He showed his teeth, and a drool of foam began to drip from the side of his mouth.
The three brothers stood facing one another in a tight circle, first threatening the one on the left and then the right. After a few dozen heartbeats, a gentle chime from the small clock on Angus’ table broke through the tension. Like the uncoiling of intertwined springs, all three men relaxed.
“Yes, it is time to choose,” Thaling said, lowering his blade and resuming his usual slump.
“If it is my turn again,” Dinton said, “my edicts remain the same. No contact with the natives. Reduce the frivolous use of water. Store it instead against when there will be drought. And above all, patience. Wait for what eventually is going to happen—for when the humans will be gone.”
“Action now,” Angus said. “If it becomes my turn, then there will be tasks that I will command what you and your flocks are to do.” He turned and looked at Thaling. “And you, brother. Every time, you are always silent. “Have you even thought about what would be your commands if the baton were to pass to you?”
“No thoughts, my brothers.” Thaling’s slump grew even deeper. “Not until such time as they are needed. Let us continue as we have done before.”
Dinton grunted. He stooped and began retrieving the box and its scattered contents. Thaling and Angus bent to help. Soon a flat board, the tokens, and the cards were in their proper places.
“Before we begin, the oath,” Dinton said. Angus and Thaling nodded.
In unison, they orated, “I agree that the winner of the game gets the baton for the next cycle. For so long as he holds it, his word is absolute, and I shall obey.”
“And regardless of who holds the baton, I shall practice no craft. But if I transgress, the tigerwasps shall do what they will with me.” Dinton then continued alone.
“And regardless of who holds the baton, I shall practice no craft. But if I transgress, the tigerwasps shall do what they will with me,” Thaling repeated.
“And regardless of who holds the baton, I shall practice no craft. But if I transgress, the tigerwasps shall do what they will with me.” Angus spoke as the last.
Angus held his thoughts to himself. He pushed away the images of the wasp depositing an egg in his stomach bulges. There was high risk in what he was doing. He could not deny it. But then, neither could he continue with things as they were.
The three turned their attention to Angus’ tabletop. Dice rolled and the tokens moved. No one spoke until Thaling said, “I suggest it was done by Miss Scarlet with the revolver in the lounge.”
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The door closed silently behind her as Briana entered the portal. A soft light illuminated a narrow white corridor perhaps ten paces long and ending in another door like the one now behind her. The wall on her left was featureless as a perfectly calm sea. On the right, near each door was an array of controls arranged in rows. Each row looked the same—a selection button, some illuminated text, and a long sequence of counting wheels. Halfway between the two entrances, an array of small, ornate drawer pulls, no two alike, budded forth from the wall. There were no loose artifacts to be seen: no papers, quills, charts, or discarded swathing. There was none of the elaborate scrollwork and decorations like those in vogue with the magicians of her own world. The whole effect was one of sterile efficiency.
Briana retrieved from her backpack the instructions left by the shrouded stranger. Inside were translations into her own tongue what the writing and symbols meant. The top-most inscription in the panel at her side said ‘location’ and immediately below, two more, ‘Murdina’ and ‘Nowhere.’ All the counting wheels showed zeros.
She hesitated a moment. This portal is magic, she thought. Nothing can go wrong. Nothing can fail. Get on with it. With a last bit of reluctance, she pressed the button next to ‘Nowhere.’ Almost instantly, a sharp click of a bolt sliding into place came from the door. The entire structure began to shimmer. A wave of nausea washed over her, sending her to her knees. Her eyes watered, and she could not keep them in focus.
After a short while, the vibrations stopped. The nausea went away. A warning disk of angry red shown in the middle of the door. She rose and tried the handle, but it did not budge. Evidently, the portal had moved the gateway from Murdina, from the council room to Nowhere, and it was not safe to see what lay outside.
Next, she dialed the right most counting wheels adjacent to ‘Murdina’ to one hundred and then again pressed the selection. As she expected, the vibrations did not start immediately. Instead, the numbers in the wheels began to decrease—ninety-nine, ninety-eight. . .
When the count returned to zero, she braced herself, and the shimmering began again. Better prepared, the upset stomach did not feel quite so bad, and when the vibrations finished, the latch clicked a second time. Now, the handle turned easily. She opened the door and glanced out into the dimly lit council chamber. A pleasing comfort like that from sliding into familiar slippers washed over her. She was back to where she had started.
With gathering confidence, Briana shut the door and selected ‘Nowhere’ from the list of locations a second time. After the vibrations had ceased again, she smiled. Things were working as she had expected. Each listed location was a place the door could be positioned to open upon. And the corresponding countdown determined when the translation would start to take place.
She decided to leave the door through which she had entered parked at Nowhere. It would do no good to use the portal and then have some minion of her father immediately follow.
And the second door. It must open to the shrouded stranger’s world. How else could he have gotten home? A peek there before she returned would be an added bonus to report about to her father. When she did, he would maintain a gruff exterior of course, but inside, he would be proud. Thinking about it gave her a warm glow.
She moved to the other end of the portal. The only choices on the wall there were ‘Nowhere’ and ‘The Vanquished’—nothing that would indicate Randor’s home. He must have wanted to keep his location secret, but, if so, how did he manage to get there after he had visited Murdina?
Briana pushed the thought away. Something to figure out later. There was no time for that now. She shouldered her pack, selected ‘The Vanquished,’ waited for the vibration and nausea to go away and opened the door.
It was dark, not as dark as a moonless sky, but dim enough that she could make out nothing. She snapped one of her glow sticks and cautiously looked outside. The air was tainted with a strange odor she could not identify, something stale and heavy like that of a room unopened in years, but evidently not toxic. She felt no ill effects from what she had inhaled.
Reassured, she studied what she saw more carefully. In the near distance in front of her were what looked like the bars of a cage! She whirled about. The bars gently curved off into the gloom on both sides, hinting at a giant circle of confinement.
Randor had said the natives did not practice any of the crafts. So she had naturally assumed they were primitive as well—living in simple huts, perhaps with plowed fields and tethered animals nearby. But metal bars. . .
Maybe when Randor’s people last visited here, there was no cage. It would make sense to put the portal in an uninhabited location. But the circular barrier now changed things. The first thing she would have to do was. . . escape.
Holding the glow stick in front of her, Briana stepped out of the portal, paced to the line of vertical bars, and started walking the perimeter of the confining wall. After a few dozen steps, she gasped aloud at what she saw—a narrow opening through which she easily could walk!
She started to step through the opening and then stopped. The reality of what she was getting into started to rumble in her head. Her confidence began to falter. Things were not going to be simple; already there was a complication. The enclosing cage was here for a reason. Come the dawn, perhaps natives would arrive to inspect its contents. Even if she were not here, they would see the portal door. She would not be able to leave it unguarded and wander about.
For a few moments, she thought about what to do. The setter, she finally remembered from the instructions. Yes, that was what was needed! She returned into the portal, found the correct drawer in the wall now on the left, and extracted a small, slender device that she could hold easily.
She ran her free hand over the bottom of the container but felt only smooth metal. There should have been a tracker in addition to a setter, she remembered from the instructions. But there was none. On the controller she held, the selection choices near the two doors were reproduced along with their nearby selection buttons and counters. She exited the portal, and back outside, carefully read the instructions for the setter’s use. She studied them a second time to be sure. Even the smallest mistake here could maroon her forever.
When Briana was satisfied that she understood thoroughly, she began pressing tiny button-like objects protruding from the setter. She set the counter for the ‘Nowhere’ location near the door she had exited to one hundred, then set the counter for ‘The Vanquished’ to an additional hundred more.
Next, she started the countdown for the ‘Nowhere’ location to begin— to move the portal door to Nowhere when the count reached zero. Before it completed, however, she started ‘The Vanquished’ countdown as well. The counters for both choices began spinning down.
Just as Briana was beginning to fear something had gone wrong, the portal vanished. Briana twisted her loose curl into a tight spiral. Waiting for another fifty was agonizing, but finally, the magic transport again reappeared. It had gone to Nowhere and then returned.
The instructions said a day on this, the exile’s planet, was forty-three thousand three hundred and twenty heartbeats. Using that number for the length of time before retrieving the portal from Nowhere meant she could hide it for an entire day. And she could set things so that she was present when it appeared and none of the natives was about.
Briana quickly browsed through more of the instructions. How to add and delete location choices was complicated. More complex still were explanations of how the portal worked. It was not a simple matter to have a door stay in one place. A planet spun on its axis and also hurtled through the cosmos. While on the outside, it might look that a door was standing still, it was in fact continually in motion.
Briana made the necessary portal control setting and felt her confidence return, although not quite as high as it had been at first. But no matter. Now for the adventure to begin.
She scrambled through the opening. On the other side, she looked up at a wooden placard attached to the wall written in the script of the natives. With the help of the language guide, she spoke aloud what she read.
“Wattles Mansion and Garden. City of Los Angeles.”
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Preparation for Adventure
Briana placed the small disk over the keyhole. Its magic gently tingled her fingertips. With a satisfying click, the bolt in the door retracted. She grabbed the handle, thrust her backpack into the opening, and then buried the disk into the potted plant standing beside the doorway. The page would retrieve it later, and the only mystery would be how the council room had somehow been left unlocked.
Briana entered the chamber and let the door swing shut. The heavy drapes had been pulled back earlier, but because it was a moonless night, the blackness was deep. Perhaps the two rows of chairs were gone, and the council table returned as well. She reached into her pack in order to snap a glowstick, but then halted. Now she only had five left, and to waste one here would not be wise. She had to start thinking like an adventurer, not some pampered doxy wondering about dinner the next day.
Feeling along the wall, she felt a sconce and found the indentation nearby containing matches. The flickering glow of a single candle was enough. Yes, the chairs were gone, and the large round table had returned to its usual place. The door into the portal still stood on the other side of the room, beckoning like a seductive siren.
Briana set her equipment on the ground for one last check before proceeding. She would have to hurry. Dawn was not far away, and she needed to be gone before anyone else would come—before anyone would stop her from what she was going to do.
She smiled with satisfaction. Her cloak would be cover if the climate turned out to be cold. The surface of a goatsack of water filled almost to bursting was completely dry; there were no leaks. A dagger for the left side of her belt and a stout baton of ironwood for the right. Two loaves of hard bread and a change in underwear completed her essentials. She would wear her tunic, leggings, and boots for the entire journey. There was no need for anything more.
Briana looked over the provisions a final time. She replaced one loaf of bread with a sack of sweetmeats. After all, she was only to be gone for a few days.
The instructions for the portal, native dictionary, and the language guide left by the visitor joined a coil of string, a slim journal, some quills, and a small bottle of ink. How her father had managed to keep everything in his head on his own saga, she could hardly imagine.
Her father, Briana thought. What would he do if she were caught? He was widely regarded as just and level-headed, but when it came to his own family. . .
She turned her attention to her small trove of precious objects—toys from her childhood, things long since put away. None was powerful of course—those were too rare, too expensive. But what she did have might come in handy in dealing with the primitives. She had one for each of the five crafts: Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, Magic, Sorcery, and Wizardry.
From a thaumaturge, a short metal cylinder, shorter than the width of a hand, cut into two pieces lengthwise—one piece named the ‘king’ and the other the ‘queen.’ It was a teaching tool for youngsters for ‘once together, always together’ and ‘like produces like.’ Briana remembered hiding one-half under something like a handkerchief and then manipulated its twin so the first would soar and scare her older sisters
Next, her collection of glowsticks from an alchemist. She had bought a batch of two dozen when she was twelve, and she had wasted most of them over the years until she realized that those remaining should be saved until there was a real need rather than an imagined one. Snap one apart and there would be a soft glowing light lasting for many minutes.
She grasped the dark crystal of columbite, its color an unusual deep brown-black. It was a source of niobium, the magician had explained at the bazaar. Used in rituals producing strange forces that never faded. Useless unless the iron was stripped away first, but it was all a child needed in order to pretend.
The sorcerer’s telescope came next. Yes, a telescope, but somehow rendered the size of her hand, sights for both of her eyes rather than only one. The light bent back and forth inside, the sorcerer had said, so that the telescope need not be long and cumbersome. The best part was that the chant one had to say in order to make the device work was short and simple. Despite what everyone knew—how difficult it was to recite correctly three times through, and the headache that would occur when there was a miscasting—each time she had used the strange telescope, she had not faltered. Each time she saw clearly images from many paces away—a charm of far-seeing, as potent as any in the sagas.
Finally, five mitematches bound in string, their tips coated in alchemical preparation that caused the shafts of ironwood to burst into flame when rubbed against a coarse surface. The imps from the demon realm on the other side of the fire were almost the smallest of all. Although they had surprising strength, they were as tiny as baby moths and their wills feeble and easy to dominate. Briana remembered how her sister had swatted helplessly as one whined around her head as it had been commanded.
riana brushed the direction of her thoughts away. Yes, these were juvenile things, most likely cheap diversions to keep children occupied while parents bargained for items of true craft at the bazaar. That did not matter. The important thing would be the reaction of the natives to them if the situation arose.
She reassembled her pack, attached the bedroll, and shouldered its straps. The sky outside was growing lighter. Soon, someone would come to the chamber. There was still the workings of the portal to be mastered. She started to drop a note saying she was going, but then thought better of it and crumpled the parchment into her pack. She toyed with a loose strand of hair for a second and then slowly walked over to the waiting door. Its handle tingled to the touch—yes, true magic.
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Father and Daughter
Briana took a seat next to her father, and the page ushered in Slammert. “May I approach my betrothed to bestow a kiss of greeting, mighty Archimage?” he said.
“No, you may not,” Alodar answered through gritted teeth. “Words of your deeds precede you. What is this about?”
“From the tone of your greeting, I infer your daughter has thought it better for me to announce the wonderful news. Here, look at the document I bring. I am sure you will find it in proper order.”
Alodar quickly read the contract, looked at Briana, then back to Slammert, and scowled.
“I have not consented to this,” he said.
“But consent was given, venerable Archimage. Perhaps with the distractions of state, you have lost track of the time. Your youngest daughter is of age.” He smiled at Briana. “She has been for some time.”
“I will abrogate the agreement,” Alodar thundered. Briana had never seen him like this. Usually, he exhibited complete control.
“But you cannot.” Slammert smiled. “You know that very well. The Archimage is not a despot holding sway over all of Murdina. Your decisions are accepted by those who rule because of the respect given to you — accepted only because of that respect. You cannot arbitrarily reverse something freely agreed to by another. The matter is concluded. It is done. Time for you to move on to your next crisis.”
“Decisions are altered all the time,” Briana burst out. “New information is not ignored.”
“It has taken years of reasoned logic and gentle prodding,” Alodar said, “but even the kingdoms to the south have seen the value of what I have espoused — the value of open borders, free trade, the expansion of commerce. Even the Iron Fist is now an inn for tourists.
“Except for the ceremonial palace guards,” the Archimage continued, “standing armies have been disbanded throughout the world. There is no longer any need for the expense. Everyone abides by what I decree. For that to work, I must be beyond reproach. I, more than all others, must abide by the law.
“This crawling slug is right, Briana.” He sighed. “You have been most foolish, but you have agreed. You are bound.”
There was a moment of silence, then Alodar said “Slammert, why exactly are you here?”
The lord glowered at Alodar. “Perhaps to remind everyone why the wedding must go forward as planned.” He smiled at Briana. “And to inform you, my beloved, that in your honor, I will be replacing one of the posts of our wedding bed with a new one. The old lumber is almost already notched from top to bottom. Yours will be the first on the new. Then every time we spend the evening together, you can count for yourself how many other notches have been added for those days we are apart.”
Slammert’s tone hardened. “Make no doubt about it, wench. I always get whatever woman I want. Always!”
Rage contorted Alodar’s face. He curled his fists in frustration. “Get out,” he managed to command through clinched teeth. “Somehow… somehow, I will find a way to get this undone.”
“That we shall see.” Slammert bowed. “As you wish, mighty Archimage, I now will leave. I have other kings and lords to visit and extend invitation to the wedding — and remind them also about the agreement you must honor.”
After Slammert had left, the silence hung like a dark raincloud over the two who remained.
“Am I not worth something more to you than a mere pawn in the world of politics, Father?” Briana asked.
“Of course you are,” Alodar said. “But in that world, you are only a beloved daughter, not a wielder of power.”
“You do not command armies either.”
“Yes, but it is my knowledge, my experience, my reputation that serves instead.”
The decision rushed into Briana’s thoughts and solidified. She twirled a loose strand of her hair in her fingers while she decided what to say. “Let me be the one who ascertains the situation with the exiles, Father. And after that, there are other tasks you could give me, too. Then, the royalty and their lieges could understand why you broke the betrothal, why I have value more important than the desires of a border baron, value of importance to all of Murdina.”
“What? The exiles? No, that is impossible. No one knows if what this cloaked visitor says is even true. A proven champion is needed.” Alodar brow folded in a fatherly frown, and then he managed a weak smile. “Someone who has a very good chance of returning unscathed.”
“But wouldn’t that be the proof you needed? An example of what my worth to everyone would be? Reason enough to nullify the agreement made with Slammert. Everyone would understand.”
Briana continued without thinking which words were tumbling out of her mouth, words she did not even know were there. “I want to go on an adventure, Father, as you did before becoming the Archimage, before checking off all the steps in the same boring ritual: courtship, marriage, children, and then old age. I want my name to be added to those in the sagas, triumphing over adversity, righting great wrongs, saving the world… or at least a little part of it.”
She smiled, “Tales like those recorded of the deeds of my famous father. You were scarcely older then than I am now.”
Alodar startled at the words. “Aeriel warned me it might come to this — that is, if we had had sons as well as daughters.”
“How can you say that?” Briana exploded. “What difference does the gender make? Was not your final victory as much because of what mother did as you?”
Alodar was silent for a while and then answered softly. “No, you are right. Of course, I would not be here today. The world would not be as it is now if not for her. And to this day she completes me still.”
“And so, I want to be the one who goes through the portal and visits this other orb. The natives look almost the same as ourselves. It could be a woman’s task as well as a man’s.”
Alodar started to answer, but then frowned. “Wait a moment. You said, ‘One traveler at a time.’ How do you even know that?”
“From the writings given to us by the shrouded one on his first visit last year.” Briana shrugged, trying to make light of it. “A library page has been kind enough to gain me access.”
“I have studied the tome well,” she continued. “There is a dictionary, a tutorial on one of the dominant languages, what the alphabetical symbols look like, and a pronunciation guide.”
“Yes, yes, you are an apt student, able to discover secrets from even the most ancient of texts. Few of your age are your equal. But — ”
“And most important of all, the natives are primitive.” Briana rushed on. “They have no knowledge of the five crafts. Even if they did, the laws would be the same as they are here. I would not be going to another realm. It will be easy to explore a world that is like ours. How hard could that be? I will be back in a few days.
“Unlike other magical items, this portal has controls, settings for where and when to go and such,” she continued at a slower pace. “I have studied that also. After all, we have had these parchments for a year.”
The Archimage shook his head, “We have only the shrouded stranger’s word that the natives do not use the crafts. I do not trust him… at least not yet. Not until whomever makes the journey reports back what he has learned. Trust me. I will somehow find another way to correct the error you have made.”
He placed his hands on Briana’s shoulders, paused for a moment more, and then said softly, “The answer is no.”
“You can’t do that!” Briana yelled back. “Even the Archimage has limits to his power. You admitted as much yourself. You cannot order me around like some serf of an Arcadian lord.”
“I do not order you to stay because I am the Archimage,” Alodar said. “I do so because I am your father.”
Briana felt the anger well within her like a brush fire suddenly out of control. She clinched her teeth so as not to say more. The library page had a key to this council chamber, she thought fiercely. It might take more than a single kiss to get it, but that is what she would have to do.
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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.
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